A Christmas Miracle

A first person story by Linda Lane, a Schoolcraft resident, and South County News board member

As I pulled into the parking lot at the restaurant for my mom’s 85th birthday luncheon, I told my husband I’d call him back when we were both in route home to Schoolcraft, he from Kentucky and I from Grand Rapids. It was three days before Christmas and we had big plans.

Unbeknownst to me, five minutes later he pulled off the highway in rural Kentucky and dialed 911. That call saved his life.

In Grand Rapids, my mom had arrived with my sister, frazzled from the car horn blaring nonstop. The blaring started without the horn ever being touched and it wouldn’t stop. A UPS driver helped out by crawling under the vehicle to rip the wire connection to get it to stop. In retrospect, the horn was a weird emergency call: we didn’t know it at the time, but it happened exactly when my husband experienced an “aortic dissection” in a rented car near Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

When the birthday lunch concluded, a text from my husband popped up. “In hospital.” That was all it said. I tried calling. No answer, several times. I texted back, “Where are you?!?” No response. I called again, several times. No answer. I texted again, “Please call me!!!” No response. I assumed he’d been in a car accident driving home.

My husband had texted the plant manager he worked with: “?” That was it. One question mark. The plant manager texted him back, “Are you okay?” Response: “No.” He had texted after he had called 911. It was all he could get out. Within 10 seconds, his vision went black and he was experiencing excruciating chest pains.

After crazy phone calls between his work and my family, we found no record of him in any hospitals in Indiana, where we were guessing he’d been in an accident. No traffic accident report for the rental car. Finally, he was tracked down to an Elizabethtown Hospital; we learned he was being airlifted to Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky for emergency heart surgery.

I called a best friend and told her what was happening. Could they help with our two dogs? She’s part of the Heart Team at Borgess Hospital. She told me I really needed to take our two boys with us down to Kentucky, that he might not make it. I had never heard of an aortic dissection before, but I began to realize it was really awful.

It wasn’t even 45 minutes after I had received that first text from him, and I could feel my world crumbling.

I packed my bag and one for two boys in under eight minutes, and was back on the road. A strange number rang on my phone; an unknown physician’s assistant informed me they were prepping my husband and he was moving into heart surgery right now. My husband’s voice on the phone was quiet, raspy, and unnatural. He seemed tired as we both told each other in frightened voices how much we loved each other. I told him I was coming.

The open-heart surgery, which started at 6 p.m., was expected to take 6 to 10 hours due to the complicated nature of what had occurred to his aorta and heart. The ascending aorta (going out of the top of the heart) had ruptured, tearing the inside lining of three layers within the aorta, creating a double-barrelled tube where it had previously been a single tube. The rupture was forcing blood in and out of his heart simultaneously, which significantly damaged a heart valve. To make matters even worse, he was on blood thinners (due to previous blood clots) and that meant he was going to be at risk for severe bleeding during the surgery. It was going to be a complicated and difficult surgery.

My sister, niece and I stared at each other, flashing back to an awful night we lost someone we dearly loved. My sister’s husband (and niece’s dad) had died in Grand Rapids during a routine, out-patient, heart-catheter procedure. We were all scared. “This cannot happen again,” I said, our eyes filling with tears. My heart-team nurses texted and called to tell me they’d checked out the hospital and surgeon. Both had great ratings. They told me to be patient and hope for the best. Hours ticked by slowly.

At 12:30 a.m., a nurse came out with good news! The surgeon had replaced the heart valve and repaired the aorta! They were trying to control some bleeding, but the surgery was going well. But just a half hour later, the nurse came out. Her mood had definitely changed, with her face creased with worry from the operating room. The surgeon had discovered a new tear. It was below the area he had just completed, so he had to undo what he had just fixed to get to the tear and repair it. Things had gotten more complicated and it would be a longer wait.

To be concluded in next month’s South County News.

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