Personal Stories: Melissa Curtin
Thank you for this website! We spoke shortly after I experienced a Type
1, Type A ascending aortic dissection 4/10/08. I was 34 1/2 years old,
very healthy and 3 weeks post-partum, just gave birth naturally to a
healthy baby girl. (This was my second child). Like many who have
survived and posted to your site, I feel very lucky considering the
severity of what I went through.
Here's my story from what I remember.
I was on maternity leave from FT work from a
position I took about 7 months prior. My plan was to take 4 weeks off
and bring the baby to work with me after that point. 3 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/preschool we started our son 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 11/1130a 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 a few blocks, 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 official
returning back. With my cell phone, I called the daycare guy to let him
know I would pick up Logan later in the day. As I am on the phone about
noon, I am 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 arrives and to make sure that
whatever happens - 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 continue to feel very ill, confused
and a bit scared.
My husband arrives and walks me into the bathroom
where he notices my toenails were purple. The ambulance arrives moments
later and I am in so much pain I cannot 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 2 days later from the coffee shop
-- and I was 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 femural artery and up to my corata 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. About a half hour ride from Sonoma to
Santa Rosa. It took the ICU and emergency staff about 6 hours to figure
out what was happening after MRI's and a couple CT scans. No prior
history of high blood pressure, or heart disease or anyting that would
reasonably cause this to happen. In the ER, my blood pressure was non
existent 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 & stabalized to be emergency airlifted by helicopter to
Stanford University Hospital (73 miles away) for emergency aortic
dissection repair and this 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 2% and would improve to 50/50 if I got
into surgery alive. (I am unconsious throughout this whole process and
do not recall anything, luckily). Medical staff at Kaiser gave me high
amounts of drugs to stabalize me for the helicopter ride, then another
ambulance ride to the small airport in Santa Rosa, CA to Stanford.
Husband drove down over an hour and a half with my sister's boyfriend,
and sister stayed at my house with both kids and a friend came over to
help. After landing, I was ushered into emergency 5 hour open heart
surgery and survived. My family in NY 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 was 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 3 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 Dr. Reitz 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.
Dr. Reitz mentioned I didn't fit the typical patient - men between 50-70
with high blood pressure, heart disease, family history, or Marfan's. 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
couped 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 5 pounds - two things challenging to do with 2 small children!
So, this is now 7 months later...it all worked
out ok and I've had 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 5 weeks after surgery 3-4 days a week (FT) and then after 2
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 8 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 & doctors who were there when I came in on 4/10/08, so I could
thank them-- sicne I had no memory. Turns out most of the nurses were
there and when I walked in to the ER and announced I was there 5 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 awhile. They told me that while unconsious 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 apart of your journey. I hope you had as
positive a experience as I did with a talented medical staff. Thank you!
email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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