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Graduation grants heartfelt wish

Jeff Oldenburg helps his daughter Chesney Oldenburg with her graduation robes, as they prepare for that evening's commencement ceremony. Photo by Phil Custodio (click for larger version)
June 09, 2010 - Watching their child walk across the stage at Commencement, many parents of Clarkston's 592 graduates consider it a miracle.

For Chesney Oldenburg's parents Jeff and Jeanne Oldenburg, they know it is.

"By all accounts, she should not be here," Jeff said. "It's a true miracle, a success story. Rescuers did everything right on a day where everything went wrong."

"I thank God everyone was there that day," Jeanne said. "There's nothing I can do to thank them enough."

With no symptoms nor history of heart trouble, Chesney suffered sudden cardiac arrest at Clarkston High, Sept. 8, the first day of school.

Chesney doesn't remember her heart attack, but witnesses tell her she collapsed like a rag doll with no warning at about 11 a.m., the end of the half-day session.

Deputy Garry Crake and Assistant Principal Gary Kaul, who was honored with a Citizens Award by Oakland County Sheriff's Office for his actions, immediately started CPR.

"He thought she was choking on a piece of gum, and he would sweep it out and she would stand up and be fine," Jeanne said. "She wasn't choking. Gary started mouth to mouth, and he did it properly. Doctors say it saved her life."

"When he told me he had to do mouth to mouth resuscitation, it was a little weird, but not embarrassing," Chesney said. "I was, 'wow, I can't believe someone would do that for someone they didn't know.' I think it's pretty cool."

Jeanne was at the school to pick up her daughter.

"If Chesney was driving, I don't think she would have survived," Jeanne said. "I thank God she wasn't driving."

She watched from the parking lot as Independence Township paramedics and firefighters arrived.

"I felt bad rescue was there on the first day of school," she said. "I hoped whoever was in trouble was OK. I had no idea it was my own daughter."

"It came in over the radio as a seizure, but Independence Township firefighters said something didn't feel right, so they responded at a higher level than a seizure," Jeff said.

A new access driveway from the school to Flemings Lake Road, recommended by Fire Inspector Ralph Przybylski, helped cut response time.

"The new driveway already saved one person," Jeff said. "The chain of survival started with Ralph."

(click for larger version)
A secretary called Jeff at work, with the Dearborn Fire Department, and he called Jeanne.

"My husband called to tell me to get into the school," she said. "When I walked in, paramedics were using the defibrillator – they used it three times."

Dave Bridgewater, Independence Township paramedic, needed every trick and technique he knew to save her life, Jeanne said.

"Dave and Gary, they just wouldn't give up," she said. "I remember watching them work, the sheer determination not to give up, to not stop. It was unbelievable."

"They didn't even chip a tooth – it was textbook," Jeff said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of those guys."

Principal Vince Licata and Assistant Principal Jodi Yeloushan stayed by Jeanne's side as the paramedics worked.

"Vince looked at my face, which was in total despair, and he said 'don't worry, it'll be OK,'" Jeanne said. "I had my dog in the car, and I yelled, 'someone please take my dog,' and Judy Goodman (main office secretary) went out and got my dog. She took my dog home with her and took care of her."

Bob Cesario, fire department's EMS coordinator, drove the ambulance with Chesney and her mother to POH.

"It was a major hassle to get out of the parking lot," Jeff said. "Oakland County Sheriff's deputies somehow cleared the parking lot so the ambulance could get out."

"I-75 was under construction at the exit, with traffic stopped in all four lanes," Jeanne said. "Bob went through it like it was nothing. He was so calm."

POH provided immediate life support, but soon found Chesney's condition beyond their capabilities. They took her to Royal Oak Beaumont, where they "put her on ice" for surgery, using hypothermia protocols to induce a coma.

She regained consciousness six days later.

"She was very confused and very hungry," Jeanne said.

"I remember tiny snapshots in the hospital, moments, like when I'd meet someone," Chesney said. "I remember one time, I woke up and looked at my dad and asked, 'why am I here.' He said 'your heart is sick.' I said, 'OK,' and went back to sleep."

She got to go home four days after regaining consciousness.

"I wanted her home," Jeanne said. "The hospital is a stressful and confusing place. I wanted her in a normal environment so healing could start."

Home care was a full time job, Jeff said.

"It was very intense," he said. "It was scary. She was home – her care was in our hands."

Her day included an intense regimen of medication, physical and occupational therapy, blood work, and doctor appointments, he said.

"It was all very difficult," he said. "To walk from the house to the street was like climbing Mt. Everest – it took that much strength and determination."

"The first month of two, it was pretty hard," Chesney said. "All September, I lived on the couch. It was like I was an infant again. My parents would bring me food, help me shower."

She wanted off the couch by October, and tried home schooling.

"I thought I just be able to open a book and start studying, but it was close to impossible," she said. "I'd read a paragraph and forget it, then reread it and forget it. It wasn't happening. My reading comprehension was gone."

By November, she was able to go out on brief errands using a wheelchair, and made good progress with her speech therapy.

"That helped a lot – I was learning new methods of learning," she said. "I was still slow with everything. Answering any question took a couple of seconds."

She returned to Clarkston High School on Nov. 30.

"That was my first step to being OK – I was finally starting my senior year," she said. "I was nervous. It seemed like a whole new school, with the new sophomore class. Everyone knew everyone. I was the new girl. It was weird."

She was nervous about being by herself.

"I had a lot of separation anxiety," she said. "Whenever I was by myself, I was afraid it would happen again."

Kaul and her teachers kept an eye on her, Jeanne said.

"They'd check on her," Jeanne said. "It's a wonderful institution. Mt. Siko – he's wonderful. Mr. Cook, Mrs. French ... we couldn't ask for better teachers."

Chesney's short-term memory seems to be improving, though she still relies on her planner at school.

Doctors worried a heart transplant might be necessary, but a heart-strength test this past December came back normal. She will have a pacemaker and defibrillator in her chest for the rest of her life, with a battery change in five years. They hope for advances that will make battery changes unnecessary.

"Maybe something kinetically powered," Jeanne said.

She graduated with a 4.0 GPA.

"It's pretty amazing," Jeanne said. "We're really proud of her. She stayed up many nights studying, even when she shouldn't have been."

Chelsea couldn't play with her lacrosse teammates this spring, but helped at practices and cheered at every game. She also missed band season this past fall, but was set to play with the orchestra at graduation.

"We couldn't be happier – it's a box of Kleenex moment," Jeanne said. "In the hospital room was a white board. Nurses would write goals for the day (medications and treatments). I would erase them and write things like graduate from high school and go to college."

"I'm so excited," Jeff said. "When Chesney was in the hospital, it seemed like being on the ocean but not being able to drink. She was there, but she couldn't speak or open her eyes. We were hopeful this day would come."

Summer plans include fun on the lake and a job. College plans include biology and health science classes at University of Michigan - Dearborn.

"I wanted to be a firefighter (like her father and brother, Nick), though probably not now," she said. "Maybe a paramedic."

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.
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