Senior Shreya Sunderram with her Argentinian host family.

After a two-day coma, North student Shreya Sunderram woke up in a strange country with IVs in her arms and neck.  The cause: carbon monoxide poisoning.

Now,  as a  returning senior, Sunderram is happy and healthy.  “It’s really funny that people kept asking me if I saw God or a light or something; honestly, being in a coma is like sleeping really deeply.  When I woke up, I thought that I had been sleeping for a few hours, when in reality I had been passed out for a few days.”

One day, during a summer trip to Argentina, Sunderram says that she and a friend were watching a movie.  After that, they decided to sleep in.  To avoid discomfort and the cold, they turned on the heating and closed the windows and doors.  South American families generally use natural gas heaters that require combustion.  In their heater, the combustor was broken, which releasedcarbon monoxide gas into the room.  From 11 pm to about 8 am, Sunderram and her roommate were not breathing oxygen.  “At around one, I remember me and my roommate waking up, and we both tried to get up because we thought we were dying.”  According to a third roommate, the two were found paralyzed and unconscious on the floor.

“My experience has just made me more aware of my own mortality.  As a high-schooler and a teenager, you feel as if your whole life is ahead of you, as if you are immortal.  You think that you have all the time in the world to achieve what you love, but in reality, within a blink of your eye, everything can change,” she said.  “This experience taught me that you can’t take life for granted, ever, and I guess it made me a bit braver.”

According to the CDC, carbon monoxide—a colorless, odorless gas—is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned.  Since red blood cells pick up carbon monoxide more quickly than they pick up oxygen, the body may replace oxygen in the blood with carbon monoxide.  Carbon monoxide can also combine with proteins in tissues.  The effect is a blockage of oxygen to the body, which can damage and destroy tissues, cause serious injury or illness, and result in death.

“Honestly, this entire situation made me admire my parents’ bravery.  People say I’m brave, but to be able to have a resilient hope and strength, and put on a brave face for your child is true bravery,” Sunderram said.  “I had so much support from all my Argentine friends, especially my host family and even my friends back here at home. It was honestly so nice getting messages and texts from everyone.”

Sunderram traveled to Cordoba, a city in Argentina, to work with minority groups in order to learn more about  Argentinian culture.  “Part of understanding the culture of a nation is understanding its biggest problems.  In the large cities especially, poverty and slums rage rampant,” she said.  “But why should a student of West Windsor-Plainsboro, in the middle of nowhere New Jersey, care about a problem that is thousands of miles away?  It’s because these types of problems can really only get the consideration they deserve if they inspire empathy from others.”

Sunderram said she  enjoyed the trip, despite her near-death experience.  “When I think back on my trip, I think of the amazing lifelong friends I made, the incredible stories I heard, and the beautiful country I got to call my home.”

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