Gretchen Cliburn owes her life to a group of women runners who cared more about her well-being than their race.
When the BKD Wealth Advisors (BKDWA) director—then 42—collapsed from a cardiac arrest during Springfield’s Go Girl Half Marathon in April 2014, strangers stopped and performed CPR on her before she was transported to a hospital.
“I was extremely fortunate,” Gretchen says. “God put those women in the race who chose to stop what they were doing and perform CPR.”
No Warning Signs
Gretchen never thought she’d tell a survivor’s story, much less one about her brush with death. She played sports as a child and ran a little in her 20s. For years, her husband, Ken, was the dedicated runner, racking up double-digit mileage on weekends before an injury in Iraq ended his beloved pastime. “He always inspired me,” she says.
It wasn’t until a former college roommate encouraged Gretchen to join a running club in 2013 that she started increasing her mileage. Work and family left insufficient time for full marathon training, but a 13.1-mile half seemed doable.
She trained six months for her first half marathon in 2013 at Bass Pro Shops, doing Saturday long runs that started at 5 miles and gradually got longer. More interested in health than competition, Gretchen adopted a run/walk method.
“It was as much a social activity for me as a physical one; I’ve missed that aspect of it,” she says.
Routine medical checkups before Go Girl revealed nothing alarming. A doctor discovered an irregular pulse years before she started training, but attributed it to medicine and took her off of it.
The day before the race, Gretchen exhibited no symptoms of a heart problem. She was tired after a flight home from a Dallas business conference and possibly dehydrated, but didn’t feel unwell. Ken advised her to skip the race, but she wanted to earn a medal after the time and expense of registering and training.
Gretchen felt fantastic on race morning. The weather was pleasant, and she and a friend were running ahead of schedule. Near the 9-mile mark, Gretchen told her friend she needed to slow down.
“The next thing the runners around us heard was me hitting the ground,” she recalls.
Some participants in the women-only race surrounded Gretchen, who had stopped breathing. They administered CPR for 20 minutes while an ambulance driver tried to find the sidewalk at the park where Gretchen fell.
“They’ve run 9 miles already, and CPR is physically exhausting if you’re doing it correctly,” Gretchen says. “As they did it, they thought it was a lost cause, but they didn’t give up.”
Jennifer Larkin, another BKDWA staff member, also ran the race that morning. She spoke with Gretchen at Mile 3 and thought she looked strong. When Jennifer later turned a corner to see women tending to a fallen runner, she didn’t realize it was her friend.
“It’s hard enough when you don’t know who it is,” Jennifer says. “It’s pretty emotional when you notice a runner go down.”
Jennifer stopped and walked, praying for the runner as she headed for the finish line. She didn’t know it was Gretchen until after the race.
“There were a lot of people praying on that course who didn’t know Gretchen,” Jennifer says. “She had a lot of angels looking out for her that day.”
A New Perspective
Gretchen was placed in a 48-hour medically induced coma for her well-being. She woke to a flower-filled hospital room, touched by the outpouring of support from BKD co-workers and others. BKDWA Director Rhonda Christopher even helped advise Ken on the family’s finances, which Gretchen typically handled.
Ken says the second phone call he made after Gretchen’s collapse was to her supervisor, BKDWA Managing Partner Jack Thurman, who was at the hospital when Gretchen was moved from the emergency room to the intensive care unit. Ken appreciated the concern shown by Jack and others at BKD.
“Once a statement was released about Gretchen at work, there wasn’t a day for the next two weeks where a member of Gretchen’s group at BKD was not in the intensive care waiting area,” Ken says.
While Gretchen was in the hospital, her relatives found the women who likely saved her life—and then finished the race after the ambulance left. She later expressed her appreciation by treating the ladies to a “celebration of life” reception at a Springfield restaurant.
Gretchen was diagnosed with long QT syndrome, a rapid heart rhythm condition that can trigger fainting or seizures. In some cases, the heart can erratically beat for so long that it causes sudden death.
Cardiac arrest during marathons and half marathons is rare. According to a study cited in the New England Journal of Medicine, the incident rate was one per 184,000 race participants during a 10-year period. The study noted that one of the strongest predictors of survival was a bystander’s initiation of CPR.
Tiffany Holiman, BKD sales and marketing specialist, is a CPR instructor who shares Gretchen’s advocacy for CPR education. Tiffany previously taught CPR classes to train more BKD employees and has discussed having more classes.
Gretchen’s cardiac arrest made her more appreciative of life with Ken and two children and her role as a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™. Having a long-term financial plan can free one’s family members from some of the stress of unexpected events, she says. Gretchen underwent open-heart surgery last July, and she’s stopped running but still exercises.
Grateful for her rescue, Gretchen shared her story this past year at local American Heart Association Go Red for Women luncheons, advocating for more people to learn CPR and receive medical checkups.
“I think everyone should have a medical exam,” she says. “Pay close attention to the signs your body may give, and don’t hesitate to get them checked out.”