This time of year, we are encouraged to recall the many miracles that happen in our lives every day. Last fall, the doctors and staff of Overlake Medical Center were critical emissaries of miracles during my 50-day journey through three deaths and resuscitations and three open heart surgeries.
This journey started at home with my severe chest pain and unexplainable symptoms. Although I thought I was experiencing gas and it would pass, my husband called 911 anyway. I was taken to Overlake emergency where they immediately tested and ruled out stroke and heart attack. They explored my thought that the issue was gas, and administered medicines for pain and indigestion. After waiting for the medicine to take effect, the attending emergency room doctor asked where my pain was on a scale of 1 to 10 and my response was the same as when I arrived in the ambulance. He found this odd and recommended one more test before we left: a CT Scan. Although I seemed to be doing well, he explained that it was possible I was experiencing an aortic dissection. He clarified that the aorta is the large main artery through which blood pumps out of your heart to every organ and cell in your body. An aortic dissection is a disorder in which the inner lining of the aortic wall suddenly tears and separates from the middle layer of the aortic wall. The results of my CT Scan came back in less than 20 minutes confirming my type A aortic dissection.
Little did we know, this was the first miracle. Twenty percent of type A aortic dissection patients die before they ever reach the hospital and misdiagnosis can occur without proper tests. Given the many complications that can happen before, during and after surgery, if the patient makes it to the hospital, Type A aortic dissection has a 99 percent fatality rate.
My surgeon, Dr. David Nelson, and his team were conduits for the next miracle: The 10-hour open heart surgery required to save my life but with a 50/50 prognosis. My husband and I were frightened but felt reassured given the care and compassion with which the information was given. I survived the surgery and recovered in the ICU while receiving dialysis due to kidney failure resulting from the dissection. Thanks to the many dedicated ICU nurses who took care of me, I was recovering well and on track to be discharged soon when suddenly my heart stopped, and I collapsed in the bathroom. My ICU doctor and pulmonologist, Dr. Franz Hastrup, and many nurses were miracle workers as well, diligently implementing medical procedures to start my heart beating again. Their contribution to my miracles weren’t over. Although I recovered again, my heart stopped, and I died while in ICU eight days later and again 18 days later for a total of three deaths. After each of my second and third deaths, I was taken back into surgery for a total of three open heart surgeries.
I remember hospital staff and volunteers stopping by to say hello and tell me they were glad I was still with the living. Many people were involved with my care and gave me emotional support and encouragement. It became a regular occurrence to hear “You are a miracle child,” and “You are here for a reason,” from nurses and doctors alike – some of them nearly in tears. The more I heard their encouragement, I more started to believe I would not only survive but live a purposeful life.
The care I received at Overlake was a perfect blend of expertise and compassion and an example of true healthcare. My doctors and nurses are all experienced, highly qualified healthcare professionals who are good at what they do. But medical knowledge alone did not save my life. Given the trauma of repeated encounters with death, the compassion and human empathy my family and I received was equally critical to my survival.
Barbara is a mother of two, wife, author and founder of the Beautiful. Powerful. Love. event series, which creates opportunities for health and healing through arts and culture.