Personal Stories: Sheba MacDougall

Hi, my name is Sheba and am a 31 year old female. Tuesday February 1st 2005 I underwent emergency aortic dissection surgery.

The day was like any other day; I woke up, had my coffee, got the kids ready and dropped them off at school then headed to work. I felt fine, just another day Right????

Well, Around 2:00 in the afternoon, I stood up from my desk and was talking with a co-worker, then it happened, all of a sudden “Ouch” my bottom jaw was pounding, burning it felt like needles in my jaw. But, I thought that it was just my teeth were bothering me and I needed to go to the dentist again. I went back to my desk to get a drink, I needed to sit, but my water bottle was empty. My chest started hurting a little, but it felt more like anxiety or something, as I was walking to get more water, another co-worker commented that my chest and neck was all broken out with hives. I started getting a little nervous; I thought maybe I was having an allergic reaction.

So I started thinking about everything I ate for the day - nothing was new or different. I grabbed my friend Angela and told her to stay with me; I was getting a little more scared. Back at my desk, she told me to call my doctor – I was not looking to good. I called my doctor, apparently only the nurse was available to come to the phone, and she was on another call. I told the secretary my symptoms but the nurse was still unavailable, I gave her my cell phone number and told her to call me, I was going to head over there and see them or go to the ER.

As I was driving over my doctors nurse called. It was getting harder for me to talk, like I was out of breath, and it was a little painful. I told her I was going to go to the emergency room, I was real nervous. The nurse also thought I was having an allergic reaction and said I could come there and have her ‘check me out’. I asked what she would do to make me feel better, she suggested that I take benedryl; I asked if she had benedryl there? Once she told me she didn’t have any, I told her I was going to the Emergency room.

As I think back, I don’t really remember the drive over to the ER, which probably was not the smartest thing I ever done, but I do remember walking in. I just felt so weird; I was convinced that I was having an anxiety attack or allergic reaction.

I signed in, within a few minutes I was called to see a nurse, she checked me over, she too thought I was just having an allergic reaction. She left the room and within a few minutes a young doctor peeked his head in and said yes to give me some benedryl. I was told that I should feel better in 15 minutes. She sent me back to the waiting room. I remember sitting there thinking, I should get back to work- I will be better in 15 minutes. But for some reason I stayed (Thank God) because what happens next changed my life forever.

I was waiting for just a few minutes. A nurse brought me into a makeshift room with curtain walls. She gave me an EKG, the results were fine. As I was waiting to talk with a doctor, I checked my messages at work, after a few minutes the doctor came in, Doctor Michael Schwartz. I told him my symptoms, he looked at the EKG, “hum.… it looks fine”. He ordered me an X-ray. The X-ray came back fine too. He requested blood tests. I must have had bad veins that night because my arms were deep purple with bruises.

I should have taken pictures of the bruises because I have never seen anything like that in my life. I looked gross. The doctor was asking me more questions with his interns behind him, he even thought at one point it may be heartburn and ordered up a ‘medicine cocktail’ for me to drink. As I was waiting for the ‘cocktail’ to work, I started to return messages left on my work phone. I also made a call home to let my mother who was watching my kids that night (Bridgett 11 and Devin 10) that I was at the hospital, not to worry and I would probably not be home in time for dinner. I told her that I am having an allergic reaction and at this point I still believed that.

After waiting for the drink to ‘kick in’ Doctor Michael Schwartz came in to see how I was doing. Since there was no improvement he made one comment that I will never forget and will forever be grateful “I hate not figuring out what is wrong with my patients”. He ordered a CT scan. I can not show my gratitude enough for him, so many people die from an undetected dissection. But Dr. Michael Schwartz was not going to let me go home with these symptoms with out figuring out what was going on.

While I was wheeled down to the CT scan room, I was talking to the man bringing me there, telling him I was just in this same hospital a few months back and the nurses I had were so great, and to see if they were working tonight, I wanted to say hello. That previous stay resulted in back surgery for removing a broken disc. Yes, this has been a tough few months!

When I finally got in the room for the CT scan, the nurse commented on my bruises. I told you they were bad. I was purple from the wrists all the way up to the middle of the arm. She took a look at the IV that was placed in for the dye. She noticed that there was some swelling on the underside of my arm. This was the saline they put in to make sure they got the vein. I guess they missed? She took the needle out, and poof- another bruise.

She tried another vein, and poof again- a bruise. She ended up calling someone else to get a good vein. At this point I started crying a little, why am I so bruised up, why am I not feeling better; this does not make any sense to me. I get up on the bed and she wants me to lay down. It hurt so much to lay down, I remember thinking this is not right. What is going on now, wondering if it’s related from my back surgery from a few months before? But it was my upper back that hurt now not the lower where the surgery was.

So we put a few pillows under me and I tried to deal with the pain! When they were done I looked through the glass window where the technicians were, a few more people came over to look, they had ‘concerned’ looks on their faces. I started crying again, but looked away thinking it’s just in my head. I am fine there is nothing seriously wrong with me.

No one said anything and I was brought back up to the ER. I still was in good spirits, I asked the man wheeling me back, if he found out if my nurses were working and if was he able to get in touch with them. He said they were working; he could not get them on the phone but would stop up on the floor to let them know I was here! I was excited to say hello to them again, they were so wonderful to me and my family. When I arrived back to the ER, I was brought to a room, a real room, not the makeshift one with curtains for walls. I should have known this was not good.

Once I was in the room, I said I needed to use that bathroom, the nurse Amy said I needed to wait for the doctor, he would be right in. I thought that was weird? I got a bit annoyed. She was right, the doctor would be right in. Dr. Michael Schwatz stood at the end of the bed and said, “remember I told you we look for the obvious things that may be wrong and sometimes there is something rare that we find, we did, you have a tear in your aorta and need surgery”. He described what was wrong, I had a tear from the arch of my aorta all the way down to my stomach, but I really did not under stand the severity of it all until days AFTER the surgery.

He wanted phone numbers of family members for him to call, this was serious and there was a possibility that I might die. I told him to call my mom, she was at my house watching my kids and to call my husband Chris, he was working. As we waited for them to come to the hospital, they told me that they were going to give me morphine.

I told them that I did not want any drugs, but I guess my blood pressure was so high that I needed it. I knew nothing about blood pressure, what it is supposed to be at and so forth. I do now! Dr. Michael Schwartz told me he was calling down the Cardiac specialist from that hospital but at the same time he was coordinating a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). He told me that they are more equipped to handle this type of surgery. Again all of this makes no sense to me but I am so glad he did! He knew that the doctors at MGH have a facility more equipped to handle this procedure. Boy was he right!

The Cardiologist came down, reviewed the CT scan and agreed to have me transported to MGH. My mother and husband arrived, both looking completely horrified. I told them to “relax I would be fine”. I had no idea what I was in for! It’s probably better that way. I even said to the doctor, I needed to get a second opinion, that’s what I was told when a doctor says to get surgery. He said there was no time for second opinions; I would be dead by the end of the night if I did not get surgery. Well that put my mother and Chris over the edge. I started to worry, one never really knows how they would react when you are told you will DIE, I think I was in shock, I think I even told him, he was kidding?

He got a call back from MGH and told him that Dr. Alan D. Hilgenberg was on call and would be performing the surgery. Dr. Michael Schwartz said “I was in the best hands, and could not have asked for a better doctor to perform my surgery”. I thought, of course you would say that, what you are going to tell me this is the doctors first time and ‘good luck’?

I was prepped for the ambulance ride and Amy my nurse was coming for the ride to. I commented to her that she gets to come on a road trip, “how fun”. She was great, I think that nurses are really angels in disguise and the doctors are Saints. I would never have been so calm if it was not for her. She kept telling me what exactly was going on, and that I would be ok. My blood pressure was not going down so she kept giving me more morphine. I was starting to get a little silly.

We arrived at MGH, as I got out of the ambulance; I saw my husband, my sister Melanie and her boyfriend Chase. They all looked so scared. They brought me into the ER, and then Amy (the angel) said that it was going to start getting busy and lots of people were going to be coming in and being getting me ready for surgery. The nurses, doctors and everyone in the emergency room were so great they let my whole family come in the ER with me, little did they know how big my family was, my dad was driving down from Maine with his wife Justine, my brother Kevin, my mom came in with my step dad Dan, even my best friend Deb showed up, we said she was my sister.

There were so many people prepping me for surgery, and again with the needles, it was so hard to get some good veins to draw blood and put in the IV’s that the Anesthesiologist had to do it. I remember seeing Dr. Alan D. Hilgenberg, he came to talk with us, I just remember his smile, and he made me think every thing would be fine. As I just about to be wheeled away, my family looked so sad, eyes were all field with fear and tears. I kept tell them “I will be ok; my physic said I was going to live a long life”. That must have been the morphine talking.

When they wheeled me into the operating room, they put me on the table and I said, “When I wake up, even if I can’t talk, just tell me that my kids are all right. That’s all I want to know. Just keep telling me that my kids are all right!”

I woke up over 7 hours later! Thank God, well Thank Dr. Alan D. Hilgenberg and his team. He repaired the arch of my aorta, there still is a tear at the bottom near my stomach. They do not believe that I need surgery on that. If I take care of myself and have them keep an eye on me, I will be ok. I was in ICU for 2 days and then in recovery for a little over a week. The staff at MGH are the most amazing people, I did not realize until I left what great hands I was in. To this day people continue to tell me that.

I have had my post surgery appointments; one with my cardiologist Dr. Eric Isselbacher and one with the surgeon Dr. Alan D. Hilgenberg, whom I found out after the surgery are both Co-Directors of the Thoracic Aortic Center at MGH. I could not have asked for any one better to be taking care of me. I am doing well, my blood pressure is a bit high so I have new medication to take. I have started really watching what I eat, I would never have thought at 31 I would need to watch every little thing I eat and do. I know this is going to be a challenge for me, but I must, I have 2 beautiful children to raise and watch grow up.

It is hard to believe some days that just 2 months ago I almost died? I continue to be told that I “Look great”. But I don’t always feel great, there are a whole bunch of emotions that come with this that no one is aware of, well no one that hasn’t been through this. I still think I am like a walking ticking time bomb, even though my doctor said “I’m not”, I still get nervous when I can feel my heart beating, and I have mini anxiety attacks. And if you remember, that is how this whole this started; I thought I was having an anxiety attack or something similar. I have found some comfort in reading other peoples stories, I see that I am not alone.

I have found helpful information on your website- Thank you! It has taken me a while to write about my story ( I know its long), I got very emotional at first when I started to think about what ‘really happened vs. what almost happened vs. what could have happened”. There are so many emotions, being scared, sad, and happy to be alive, self pity and then there is being mad. I did not think I would have been ‘mad’, but I do get mad, I get mad thinking, here I was, a 31 year old woman taking care of her self and family and this happens. Why? Why me?

I guess its all just part of the recovery process, and you have to have positive thoughts to get healthy.

Never take anything or anyone for granted- say THANK YOU!

Tell the people you love, just how much they mean to you.

Live your life like it’s the last day of your life, because we all know how precious and short life really is.

Thank you again Brian for providing this website.



Here is some information that I thought you may be interested in.

The Surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital perform more aortic arch reconstructive surgery than any other center in New England and they have great information about the surgery they performed on me, as well as other types on their website. They have included a section on Thoracic Aortic Disease research that Dr. Alan D. Hilgenberg was involved in. Doctor Michael Schwartz was right; I could not have been in better hands.

The MGH website has a live camera on selected surgical procedures where you can watch and ask questions, and on Thursday April 14th, at 4:30ED and Aortic Aneurysm will be repaired.



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