Melissa’s Story

I was on maternity leave from a full-time position I took about seven months prior. My plan was to take four weeks off and bring the baby to work with me after that point. Three weeks into my leave on Thursday, April 10, 2008, my husband had dropped my son off at 9 a.m. to try out a new daycare/pre-school our son started that day. We had a leisurely morning – nothing special. Part of my wisdom tooth broke off either that morning or the night before – not sure now. 

So I thought that was my big issue of the day and I would make an appointment with the dentist. I suggested to my husband about 11:00/11:30 am that we walk up with the infant to our local coffee shop and get coffee before he had to meet someone for lunch. Off we walked a short distance, just a few blocks, and I ordered a half caf- or decaf iced coffee drink, bumped into a friend – we all chatted away. My husband left shortly after the coffee arrived for his lunch meeting. I unpacked my laptop thinking I would get a head start on some work before officially returning to my position. With my cell phone, I called the daycare guy to let him know I would pick up Logan later in the day. As I was on the phone about noon, I was startled by a sharp pain and I remember saying, “I’m sorry I have to go – I’m having this bad pain” and hung up abruptly. 

I signaled to the coffee roaster to come over. The baby was sleeping in her car seat with stroller. I told the roaster something was very wrong and that she should call my husband and probably 911, but after my husband arrived and made sure that, whatever happens, he should make sure the baby is ok. The pain was a ripping, tearing pain that went up my back and down my chest. Then when it hit the top of my neck, I threw up. Because I just had a baby, I also peed myself. Not fun in a public place. I started losing feeling in my legs and my vision was going blotchy as if I was about to black out. I am a very healthy person, so I knew this was serious. As I sat on the couch, everything was happening so fast. (A few days prior I was having chest pains when I breathed in deeply, but they went away. I was not tying anything together in the moment). I continued to feel very ill, confused and a bit scared. 

My husband arrived and walked me into the bathroom where he noticed my toenails were purple. The ambulance arrived moments later and I was in so much pain, I could not articulate the pain I experienced when asked. On the gurney I went and my last memory was heading out the bathroom door and I lost consciousness somewhere between the bathroom and the exit door to the parking lot. My next memory was waking up in ICU at Stanford University Medical Center with some of my family sitting around. This was about two days after the incident in the coffee shop. I had been cut open and had no idea what I just went through: A complete aortic dissection (Type A, Type 1) in the inner layer of the aorta. I tore from almost where the heart meets the aorta (ascending), down to my femoral artery and up to my carotid artery in my brain on the right side — ending up with emergency open heart surgery. 

Back up to Thursday’s ambulance ride. My husband went home with the baby to pack what he needed to go to Kaiser Santa Rosa and follow the ambulance. It was about a half hour ride from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. It took the ICU and emergency staff about six hours to figure out what was happening after MRIs and a couple CT scans. No prior history of high blood pressure, or heart disease or anything that would reasonably cause this to happen. In the ER, my blood pressure was nonexistent on one side of my body and very high on the other. 

When the second CT scan came back, the ER doctor couldn’t believe her eyes and instructed everyone I needed to be intubated and stabilized so I could be emergency airlifted by helicopter to Stanford University Hospital (73 miles away) for emergency aortic dissection repair, which was very high risk. My husband, baby, and now sister were in the ER/ICU and they sent the chaplain in. Nurses told my husband the chances are very slim, about 2%, and would improve to 50/50 if I got into surgery alive. (I was unconscious throughout this whole process and do not recall anything, luckily). The medical staff at Kaiser gave me high amounts of drugs to stabilize me for the helicopter ride, then another ambulance ride to the small airport in Santa Rosa, CA, to Stanford. My husband drove over an hour and a half with my sister’s boyfriend, and my sister stayed at my house with both kids while a friend came over to help. After landing, I was ushered into emergency five-hour open heart surgery and survived. My family in New York received a call that said, “if you want to see Melissa alive and say goodbye, you better get on the next plane,” and so several members did just that. 

When I woke up in ICU, I remember Saturday when family was there and I spoke a little. I remember asking for my children and made everyone laugh when I said, “I was just going to get a cup of coffee.” I was told I opened my eyes on Friday, but went back to sleep. Waking up groggy, confused and well shocked, I was split open and stitched in immense pain – there were a lot of unanswered questions. Spending 12 days in ICU provided some answers, but this was all very tough since I had an infant and a three-year-old at home. My husband brought the kids once to visit – otherwise, I was at the hospital staff’s mercy for recovery. Stanford and Kaiser both did an amazing job in diagnosing, surgery, and post care. 

The surgeon at Stanford told me that it was the connective tissue changes of pregnancy that caused the dissection in my case and his guess was I had blood pressure control issues before – my blood pressure throughout my pregnancy was 110/55. I’m sure I had days of high blood pressure, but as a daily norm, it was low. The doctor mentioned that I didn’t fit the typical dissection patient – men between 50-70 with high blood pressure, heart disease, family history, or Marfan syndrome. My cardiologist at Kaiser suggested that I have a weakness in the artery wall and the pregnancy tissue changes and hormones instigated the weakness causing the tear. 

I recovered very quickly — too quickly some may say. I was checking my email in ICU within a few days after the emergency dissection and surgery. I know, crazy, but it was my connection to the outside world. One needs something to do from being cooped up in a hospital for 12 days! 🙂 Like most open heart surgery patients, I was instructed not to drive for 4-6 weeks or lift anything over five pounds – two things challenging to do with two small children! 

Now that I’ve recovered, I’ve had a chance to take a look at this situation from many angles. Consider looking at this as a wake up call for me and an opportunity to do things a bit differently, perhaps slower. I am amazed at how well I have felt all along in this recovery and because of that I did go back to work five weeks after surgery 3-4 days a week (FT) and then after two months, went to PT and then after another 2-3 months gave my notice altogether. Looking back, I was a bit too ambitous to return to work, especially when I also had a eight week old when I returned. At this point I am freelancing and enjoying life more for it can be gone in a blink. I am blessed to have been given a chance to enjoy my children and family. 

P.S. On the way home from work one Thursday night, I went back to the Kaiser ER to see if I could get a list of the nurses and doctors who were there when I came in on 4/10/08, so I could thank them– since I had no memory. Turns out most of the nurses were there and when I walked into the ER and announced I was there five weeks prior, the ER nurse at the window started screaming nurses’ names saying, “your triple A is here, she’s here.” I met with the nurses and medical staff for a while. They told me that while unconscious in the ER, fading in and out, I was talking completely coherently about my waterbirth, and I asked them not to give me drugs because I still wanted to nurse my infant. They also told me they thought I would die and everyone was very upset. All the nurses were thrilled that I returned and mentioned no one ever comes back to thank them. I made their evenings and that made mine. I am so grateful for their professional courage to do whatever it took to diagnose me and keep me alive. 

So please – remember your nurses, doctors and the special medical staff that were a part of your journey. I hope you had as positive a experience as I did with a talented medical staff. Thank you! 

– Melissa