The last thing Hilary Greenberg remembers of April 9, 2012, is a strong underwater surge pushing her to the ocean floor.
Although the day of diving near the Catalina Islands started off smoothly, it quickly became dangerous. An underwater current pushed the scuba diving group, including the Greenberg family — Billy, Hilary and their three sons — 40 feet out of the way. While everyone else managed through it, Hilary went missing. Bill noticed that she was gone and alerted the divemaster.
Hilary was taken to the bottom, and her breathing apparatus knocked out. About seven minutes passed before they were able to get Hilary to the surface and on the boat. She was not breathing and had no pulse.
Bill began the CPR. After a while of the now considered out-of-date method of 15 pumps followed by 2 breaths, Hilary still did not respond. Others on the boat tried to convince him to stop, but Bill kept on going. He was insistent that Hilary live, all the while wondering about her quality of life if she did survive. She could possibly be brain dead.
Emergency responders came, with a mask and oxygen tank, about 30 minutes after Hilary was taken up from the bottom of the sea. As the responders performed CPR, Bill noticed the mask was not situated properly, and oxygen was not going to her lungs, but to her stomach. Bill could not get express this problem to the Spanish speaking responders, so he intervened. Bill spent most of the 40 minutes while Hilary was unconscious performing CPR.
When they finally reached the shore, EMS revived Hilary with a defibrillator, and her pulse returned. This good news could not guarantee the state of Hilary’s brain function.
Hilary was sent to Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains to recover and her brain function monitored. While Bill Greenberg was on his way to visit Hilary, he got a call from his sister, “Bill, you got to get there right away, Hilary is talking up a storm. You can’t believe this.”
Hilary was no longer unconscious, but smiling and engaging with others, even though some of her words were not intelligible. It was as though a switch had been flipped.
Her neuropsychologist, Dr. Mark Herceg, said that Hilary’s was an anoxic brain injury. Her brain had been deprived of oxygen, so brain cells began to die. While recovering, she would be confused about everyday things like eating cereal. Her memory was also foggy, she couldn’t remember things that had happened earlier in the day or even which day of the week it was. This was all because the part of her brain most affected was the frontal lobe, where all the advanced thinking takes place.
It’s near a miracle that Hilary survived the ordeal to such a remarkable degree. A few factors helped Hilary — the cold water she was in bought her time, her cooperation and positive attitude in recovery aided her. But the main cause of Hilary’s success is her husband’s CPR. Luckily, the two of them are physicians, so they knew what would need to happen and what was medically possible. Dr. Herceg acknowledges one intangible factor, as well — Bill and Hilary’s love. “I think it’s just the relationship he has with his wife that is priceless on so many levels,” he says.
Hilary is hoping to return to work soon, but she still struggles with problem-solving skills and social situations. Dr. Herceg is confident that she’ll make a nearly full recovery. Now Hilary encourages others, including complete strangers, to learn CPR. She’s passing on the gift her husband gave her — life.