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Brush with death brings couple to life - and to a community - in Forest Grove

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Aziza Kibamba wept with gratitude as she presented Challenge Coins to the 13 public safety and emergency medical professionals who helped save her life last summer during a Nov. 9 city council meeting.Aziza Kibamba died this past summer.

But thanks to her husband and YouTube, she didn't stay dead for long.

At about 1 a.m. July 8, Kibamba had gone downstairs to join her husband, Rene Mandiangu, who was working on his laptop in the living room of their Forest Grove home.

With her three sons asleep, Kibamba decided to try finishing her book, "Near Enemy," which was due back at the library the next day.

As they sat together on the couch, Mandiangu noticed the book slip from Aziza's fingers and hit the carpeted floor. His wife, too, began slipping from the couch, wheezing for breath.

"I recognized it as a cardiac arrest from what I've seen on TV shows," Mandiangu said. "At first I panicked, but then I realized I had to do something. You have to react right away."

When his employer offered CPR training back in 2007, a schedule conflict kept Mandiangu from attending. But he decided to learn the life-saving technique anyway in case something ever happened to his children. He remembered calling 911 in a panic when his oldest son — then just a baby — began choking. The dispatcher talked him through clearing the airway but he wanted to be better prepared.

So he trained himself in CPR through instructional television programs and YouTube videos.

Now, remembering those how-to demonstrations and with help from a 911 operator, Mandiangu knelt by his wife.

The most important thing

Mandiangu and Kibamba were born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ruled for decades by a corrupt dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko, the country was in continual economic and political turmoil. Mandiangu's family decided in 1990 to have him follow his older sister to the United States, where they hoped he would have more opportunities.

He did, graduating from California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles, moving to the Bay Area to work for Arris Group — a communications technology company — and later to an Arris branch in Beaverton. Along the way, whenever he could, Mandiangu visited the DRC, which still felt like his home.

During those trips, one of his younger sister's friends caught his eye. He and Kibamba kindled a relationship and in 2006, Mandiangu brought her to Beaverton. They married the next year and moved to Forest Grove in March 2014, looking for a quieter, friendlier community and a bigger home for their growing family.

Life in the U.S. was as good as Mandiangu had promised Kibamba. They had jobs and a nice home and good schools for their children.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Since her cardiac arrests in July, Aziza Kibamba (left) and her husband, Rene Mandiangu (holding Jean-Bedel), see their time together as more precious and fragile than ever before. 'When I get mad at [Rene] now,' Kibamba said, laughing, 'I remember he saved my life, and so I dont stay so mad. He's my superhero.'

And though they didn't realize it at the time, they had something else to be grateful for, something that would suddenly, in one desperate moment, turn out to be more important than all those other things combined: a top-notch public safety system.

In the DRC, Mandiangu said, there are no emergency rooms, just ill-equipped health clinics. If you have a bad accident, you have to call your neighbors, not 911.

"There's no department you can call for help," he says, his English — like Kibamba's — carrying a heavy French accent. "And there's not that many hospitals, not for urgent situations."

In the DRC, he said, "people die from a lack of ambulances."

Almost-instant replay

On July 8, with his hands compressing his wife's chest, simulating her heartbeat just enough to maintain blood flow, Mandiangu frantically called for his 42-year-old wife to wake.

Coughing and confused, Kibamba opened her eyes moments before paramedics and emergency medical technicians arrived.

They whisked her and Mandiangu to Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland while Kibamba's nephew, who lives with them, babysat their boys.

Test results showed Kibamba had low potassium — likely a result of Jean-Bedel's recent birth — which may have helped spark the cardiac arrest.

And there was family history as well. In 1989, when Aziza was 15, her 35-year-old mother died of a "weak heart" while sitting in a chair and cooking outdoors. Four years later, her father, 50, died in his sleep from a heart attack caused by clogged arteries.

But none of that history kept hospital staff from discharging Kibamba around 7 a.m., before a cardiologist had ever seen her, Mandiangu said.

When they returned home, Kibamba went to bed while Mandiangu prepared breakfast and dropped off their two oldest boys at summer camp.

He and Kibamba rested together most of the day until he left around 3 p.m. to pick up the boys. On the way, he returned "Near Enemy" and dropped off Kibamba's prescription for heart medication at Safeway. But coming back, something compelled him to postpone the medication pickup, he said, "like a voice telling me to just go home."

Back at the house, Kibamba had been visiting with a friend and was in the kitchen when she felt herself begin to sway, then wobble, then fall.

The friend cushioned her fall to the kitchen floor and called 911, but was so panicked she couldn't remember Kibamba's address.

Then Mandiangu came through the door with the boys. The oldest, Blaine, saw his mother and began crying.

Mandiangu told Ann to take his sons upstairs as he rushed to Kibamba and began CPR for the second time that day.

"The first time, she started responding right away," he said. "The next time, she wasn't. It was scary."

The angels arrive

At least two on-duty Forest Grove police officers carry Automated External Defibrillators (AED) in their cruisers at all times.

So when Officer Steven Teets got the 3:53 p.m. call about a woman in cardiac arrest, he zoomed to the home on Parkside Avenue. The front door stood open.

Typical of crisis situations, Teets and Mandiangu have completely different memories of what happened next. Teets says he called out his arrival and walked into the hall, where Mandiangu met him and escorted him to Kibamba.

Mandiangu insists he first noticed Teets while he was still performing CPR on his wife in the kitchen. The officer put his hand on Mandiangu's shoulder, urged him to step aside and as Mandiangu turned and looked up, the sunlight through a window behind Teets cast a brightness around him. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Back in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Aziza Kibamba and Rene Mandiangu grew up, neighbors are like family. Now, since the medical emergency that introduced the family to the neighborhood, (L-R) Mandiangu, Jean-Bedel, 8 months, Henry-Leon, 5, Blaine, 8, and Kibamba see Forest Grove the same way.

"I felt like angels had come," said Mandiangu.

They both agree an exhausted Mandiangu eventually staggered to the living room while Teets began connecting the AED to Kibamba.

Teets has deployed the AED a dozen times, but has only seen it disperse a shock three or four of those times.

"Usually it advises 'no shock,'" he said, indicating the victim is beyond help. So when it shocked Aziza, Teets felt hopeful.

Seconds later, Forest Grove Fire & Rescue's Tad Buckingham arrived, followed shortly thereafter by 10 more FGF&R paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

"From the time I got to the door to the time my role was over was about one minute," Teets said.

Controlled chaos

It's actually common for anywhere from six to 15 people to show up at a cardiac arrest call, said Lt. Will Murphy, the lead Emergency Medical Services trainer for all medical response staff at FGF&R.

There are 16 different medications to administer. Someone has to drill a hole in the victim's shin to insert an intraosseous line through the bone. Others need to attach heart monitors or pull the stretcher from the ambulance or administer the defibrillator. Still others are switching out every two minutes on the exhausting job of chest compressions.

"It's nuts. It's chaotic. People are screaming and running around. Everything has to be precise. Everything matters," Murphy said.

Even more impressive in Kibamba's case was that most of the responders were volunteers, with the normally scheduled team out on a fire call, Murphy said.

"If we didn't have that volunteer response, there would have been huge delays to get to her," he said.

With four "saves" this year, Forest Grove's fire department is at a 22 percent survival rate, Murphy said, while most places in the U.S. are less than 1 percent annually.

Nationally, less than 8 percent of cardiac arrest victims survive even long enough to reach a hospital, leading to approximately 325,000 deaths a year.

By 4:09 p.m. on July 8, Kibamba was in an ambulance for the second time that day, headed to Tuality Community Hospital in Hillsboro.

This time she stayed in the hospital. This time she got intensive care, including a cardiac ablation procedure to correct her heart rhythm.

But none of it stopped the problem: After four days at Tuality and three days at St. Vincent, Kibamba suffered a third cardiac arrest in the hospital.

"After the third time, doctors had little hope," Mandiangu said.

But that changed as Kibamba's health started improving.

"It's my faith in God," she said. "I believe in miracles."

It was a bit miraculous Monday when a doctor called with results from her most recent electrocardiogram (EKG) and told Kibamba her heart was fully recovered.

Two countries now

When Kibamba finally returned home from the hospital July 23, she discovered a neighborhood full of angels and friends.

Last week, at the Nov. 9 city council meeting, she passed out "challenge coins" to the 13 men and women who helped save her life.

Kept on hand by FGF&R for moments such as this, the commemorative coins display a proverb from the Jewish Talmud on one side: "To save one life is as if to save the world."

The ceremony included a video showing the roles played by each of the emergency-medical professionals in Kibamba's rescue.

As Fire Chief Michael Kinkade narrated the rescue effort, Kibamba experienced a wave of emotion.

"Watching the video, I see everything they do," she said, her voice cracking as she remembered. "It makes me

feel like, 'They did all that to me?'

"I was crying because I kept thinking, 'I should not be here, I should not be here, I should not be here.'" She remembered hearing about another man who died from cardiac arrest around the same time as her own attack and wondered, "What's the difference between him and me? That I would live and he would die? God makes the timing. Rene was the right person at the right time."

"The way everything happened, the timing," Mandiangu said, "God had a hand in this."

Now too, after eight years in Beaverton where Kibamba and Mandiangu knew only a few neighbors and the others rarely even said hello, the attention-drawing emergency has given their Forest Grove neighbors a good excuse to introduce themselves.

Mandiangu and Kibamba were surprised at all the people who came over to check on them or who have brought food or offered to babysit their children.

For the first time since leaving Kinshasa, they feel at home. "We have two countries now," Mandiangu said.