At annual 'Thriller' event, zombie went into cardiac arrest

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Cardiac arrest survivor Sarah Katzenmaier in the zombie costume she was wearing the day she collapsed in a parade at her city's annual Halloween
Cardiac arrest survivor Sarah Katzenmaier in the zombie costume she wore the day she collapsed in a parade during her city's annual Halloween "Thriller" event. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Katzenmaier)

A week before Halloween 2021 and five days before her 68th birthday, Sarah Katzenmaier slipped into a royal blue bridesmaid dress and carefully applied her zombie makeup.

Then she made her way to Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky, like she had for the past 12 years to perform in the annual "Thriller" event.

Sarah was waiting in her assigned location with hundreds of zombies and spectators as the show began. Someone dressed as Michael Jackson and someone else playing Ola Ray, Jackson's girlfriend in the iconic 1980s music video, danced in the street.

Shortly after starting her part as an "extra" in the parade, Sarah collapsed.

She wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse. A woman started CPR as the zombie hoard started to move. Someone else called 911.

All around them, the zombie mob continued performing multiple renditions of the dance, creeping down Main Street. Finally, when the crowd started to thin, spectator Charlotte Callan noticed a commotion in the street. It looked like a medical emergency.

A pharmacy technician by day, Callan was completing her pre-med requirements by night. She wanted to become a doctor.

Callan had recently completed a CPR course as part of required training to administer COVID-19 vaccinations at the hospital where she works. Callan also learned the importance of CPR from her mother, who is a registered nurse.

The woman performing CPR on Sarah wasn't doing it consistently. Callan tapped her on the shoulder and stepped in. Sarah still had no pulse. She wasn't breathing.

For 10 minutes, Callan performed chest compressions as an ambulance navigated through the crowd. Finally, EMTs arrived.

They loaded Sarah onto the ambulance and continued CPR. When she arrived in the emergency room, she had a pulse.

Meanwhile, the event had ended. Sarah's husband, Barry, was waiting at their designated meeting point. When she didn't show up, he called their son, Kagen. He used an app to track his mother's phone. It showed she was at the hospital.

"They didn't know who she was," Kagen said. "She was a Jane Doe. She didn't have her wallet with her."

At the hospital, Sarah's blood pressure and oxygen were dangerously low. She was unconscious in the ICU for seven days. On Oct. 29, her birthday, nurses sang to her, even though she wasn't awake to hear the song.

Doctors determined Sarah's cardiac arrest was likely caused by an abnormal heart rhythm and blood clot in her upper heart. They speculated it could have been caused by a virus. Doctors implanted a device that includes a pacemaker and defibrillator to monitor her heartbeat and correct any irregular rhythms.

She spent the next few months doing physical therapy alongside Kagen, who had graduated from college in 2018 as a kinesiology major.

Callan, for her part, kept thinking about Sarah. She wondered what happened and was surprised more people in the crowd didn't know how to respond.

"If my parents or other loved ones had an emergency in public, I'd want someone in the public to know what to do for them," Callan said.

She contacted a local news station with the hope of spreading the word about how citizens can prepare themselves to respond during emergencies.

She ended up on the 5 p.m. news. Sarah's nurses saw Callan on TV and told Sarah's family. The family reached out to thank her.

Weeks later, Sarah and Callan spoke. Sarah told Callan she nominated her for the Spirit of Lexington Award. The two met when Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton gave Callan the award and named Feb. 17, 2022, "Charlotte Callan Day."

Charlotte Callan (left) and Sarah Katzenmaier the day Callan received the Spirit of Lexington Award for performing lifesaving CPR on Sarah. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Katzenmaier)
Charlotte Callan (left) and Sarah Katzenmaier the day Callan received the Spirit of Lexington Award for performing lifesaving CPR on Sarah. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Katzenmaier)

"When I first saw Charlotte, it was very special," Sarah said. "I'm alive today because of Charlotte and CPR lifesaving techniques. CPR saves lives. Period."

For Callan, the experience reaffirmed that she wanted to become a doctor. Now 30, she'll take the MCAT this spring, then apply to medical schools.

"I'm going to put my hat in the running for a DO or MD program because now I know I have the grit to do it," she said.

Sarah has made it her mission to encourage more people to get CPR training. Her extended family members took a CPR class offered by her physical therapist's office, and she's reached out to the local school board to help ensure all students complete the training voted into law years ago before they can graduate.

She's retired now and spends her days helping Kagen with the nano brewery he bought. She makes dog biscuits out of spent grain and gives proceeds to a local animal charity and is involved with the American Heart Association.

This past fall, Sarah was determined to dance in the "Thriller" event again. She wanted Callan by her side. Event organizers named them parade grand marshals. They sat in a sports car and led the parade. Then, Sarah got out to dance.

EMTs had ripped her blue dress, so she donned a new costume: blue leggings and a Kentucky Wildcats jersey.

"It felt cathartic," she said, "to get past that moment from last year."

Sarah Katzenmaier in zombie makeup and her Kentucky Wildcats jersey. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Katzenmaier)
Sarah Katzenmaier in zombie makeup and her Kentucky Wildcats jersey. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Katzenmaier)

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

If you have questions or comments about this American Heart Association News story, please email [email protected].


American Heart Association News Stories

American Heart Association News covers heart disease, stroke and related health issues. Not all views expressed in American Heart Association News stories reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Statements, conclusions, accuracy and reliability of studies published in American Heart Association scientific journals or presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the American Heart Association’s official guidance, policies or positions.

Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. Permission is granted, at no cost and without need for further request, for individuals, media outlets, and non-commercial education and awareness efforts to link to, quote, excerpt or reprint from these stories in any medium as long as no text is altered and proper attribution is made to American Heart Association News.

Other uses, including educational products or services sold for profit, must comply with the American Heart Association’s Copyright Permission Guidelines. See full terms of use. These stories may not be used to promote or endorse a commercial product or service.

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately.