When Amber Curtiss’ heart stopped beating on the floor of a Hilton Head health spa earlier this year, her then-boyfriend of eight years, PJ Curtiss, was stuck on the other side of the world.
At the time, PJ was more than 5,000 miles away in Romania as part of his work with the U.S. Marines.
The first text he received from Amber’s sister was short and simple: “Amber had a heart attack.”
“I had no idea what was going on at first,” PJ recently said in an interview. “So I told my chain of command, who let me do my own thing for a bit while I tried to communicate with her and her family.”
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Amber, 23, and PJ, 24, started dating when they were both attending Beaufort High School.
They spent about half of their eight-year relationship long distance, with Amber studying exercise science at Winthrop University and PJ a recruit at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
Still, nothing had prepared the pair to deal with one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives — and with an ocean between them and limited communication.
“It was one thing to not be with her, but another thing when you can’t communicate with the person,” PJ said recently. “You don’t know what you’re going to come back to.”
Amber, who went by her maiden name of Moloney at the time, went into cardiac arrest while interning at Hilton Head Health in February 2017.
A team effort between her co-workers, a dispatcher and emergency response groups saved her life.
Doctors were never able to diagnose her with any specific condition. Genetic testing would be a necessary step in finding the cause, but Amber said she would wait for that result until she decides to have a child.
Still, aside from a pacemaker implanted to prevent similar cardiac arrests in the future, Amber was back to her normal, positive self weeks later.
“I don’t think I’ve changed my whole outlook on life or anything,” she said. “I was already a pretty positive person. But I kind of like it because it’s a story that can inspire people around me.
“People think, ‘This has happened to me,’ and you tell them something worse and they think, ‘Okay, maybe I don’t have it that bad.’”
Six months after Amber went into cardiac arrest, PJ finally arrived back in the U.S. and was immediately ready to get down on one knee.
“We had dated each other for so long, that I thought it was time,” he said. “But it (her cardiac arrest) did heed along the process a little more.”
About two weeks after PJ arrived home, the couple moved to Jacksonville, N.C. — where PJ is now stationed as a Marine — and got married on Aug. 17.
“I always said, ‘Don’t ask me to get married while I’m in college,’” Amber said. “But since we weren’t married yet, he couldn’t come home (after her emergency). ... Now if anything like that happens again, he’s allowed to.”
After moving to North Carolina, Amber quickly started working at a local gym. In less than six months, she has been promoted from a personal trainer to assistant fitness director.
She said the rehabilitation process she went through after her cardiac arrest allowed her to become a better fitness instructor for others.
“I learned a lot about how to modify my workouts and work around things,” she said. “It was so much different from what I normally did. But now, it helps a lot dealing with different people, interacting with them and finding things that work.”
Her emergency was a challenging experience, but one that she said she enjoys using as a motivator for others.
“I’ve already had the biggest excuse of anyone, so I use that with my clients,” Amber said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t use the I’m-old-excuse, because I could play the I-died-excuse, but I’m not going to do that.’”
Amber, who views her experience as more of an annoyance than anything else, said she hasn’t seen it affect her life much today. But according to her husband, the experience led her family and friends to make changes in their own lifestyles.
“I think it definitely had an affect on others more,” PJ said. “It motivated the people around her to be happy with what they have and strive to become better.”
Asked if her experience has changed him, PJ replied, “She kicks my butt into gear. ... She’s always had that effect on me.”