A second chance at life
Elizabeth Hale gave birth to all three of her children at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill., and it’s where the Gurnee woman says she got “a second chance at life.”
She was at her son Tommy’s baseball game when she began feeling extremely queasy. Initially, she thought a cold was coming on. Then, as symptoms progressed, she thought perhaps it was a panic attack. Her anxiety elevated as her condition rapidly grew increasingly severe.
“I could feel my heart pounding like it wanted to burst from my chest,” she says.
After vomiting several times and experiencing such malaise she no longer could stand, she grabbed her cell phone and dialed 911. When paramedics arrived, she asked them to take her to Advocate Condell.
“I trusted them,” she says. “They had delivered all three of my babies.”
Elizabeth remembers being wheeled from the ambulance, then there’s a gap in her memory—a gap of roughly a week. It’s a week her husband, Jay Siedenstricker, will never forget. He arrived at the hospital around 2:30 p.m., stayed with her for a couple hours in the emergency department and then for a few more hours in the intensive care unit. At that point, doctors weren’t sure what was going on, but she appeared to be in no significant medical danger, so Jay headed home to care for Tommy, his older brother, Joseph, 14, and little sister, Maggie, who was only a year old.
At about 10 p.m., Jay’s phone rang.
“The hospital called to say her oxygen level had dropped,” Jay remembers. “When I got to the hospital, they laid everything out. They said they wanted to put her on ECMO. They said if we don’t, she’ll probably pass away. If we do, there’s no reason to think she won’t have a full recovery. I said OK, let’s do it.”
Dr. Elliott Cohen picks up the story from there.
“She was literally dying. Her oxygen level and blood pressure were profoundly low,” says Dr. Cohen, an intensivist. “She had both respiratory and cardiac failure. ECMO was the only answer.”
ECMO is Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. It’s also referred to as Extracorporeal Life Support.
When a patient is on ECMO, a machine temporarily performs the work of their lungs and, sometimes, their heart. Their blood circulates outside their body while the “membrane oxygenation” serves as artificial lungs, adding oxygen to their blood while removing carbon dioxide.
With a machine doing the work of the lungs and heart, the patient’s actual lungs and heart can rest and heal.
Other hospitals in the area have the equipment, but Advocate Condell is the only hospital in Lake County with a multidisciplinary adult ECMO team in place.
“The team approach we have is unique,” says Dr. Cohen, who leads the ECMO team, which consists of pulmonologists, cardiothoracic surgeons, perfusionists and nurse-ECMO specialists.
Jay says his wife’s condition began improving as soon as ECMO treatment began. After that initial night, all the news was good.
“As quickly as she went downhill, she started coming back around,” he says. “A few days later, she was able to squeeze my hand and look around. She knew who we were, but she didn’t know why she was there.”
The cause of Elizabeth’s near-death experience remains a mystery. Dr. Cohen says she most likely had a virus, perhaps Coxsackie B virus or viral myocarditis.
The most common cause of myocarditis is infection of the heart by a virus. The virus invades the heart muscle to cause inflammation. It can happen suddenly and without warning, sometimes resolving on its own, other times progressing rapidly and resulting in death.
Although Elizabeth doesn’t know the root of her illness, she says she feels blessed to have been alert enough to tell the paramedics to take her to Advocate Condell.
“I thank God every morning for putting me in the right place with the right team working on me,” she says. “They have given me so much more than a recovering heart – they have given me a second chance at life. Thanks to them I was able to celebrate my 33rd birthday. I was there for Joseph’s first day of high school, Tommy’s band concert, Maggie’s first sentence, Christmas with my family, and many, many other things. I’ll never be able to thank the doctors and nurses enough for all they’ve done for me.
“The ECMO machine left a small scar in the crease of each of my legs,” she says. “Those scars are my little reminders to never take life for granted, to have a thankful heart and live each day to the fullest.”
About the Author
Kathleen Troher, health enews contributor, is manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Good Sheperd Hospital in Barrington. She has more than 20 years of journalism experience, with her primary focus in the newspaper and magazine industry. Kathleen graduated from Columbia College in Chicago, earning her degree in journalism with an emphasis on science writing and broadcasting. She loves to travel with her husband, Ross. They share their home with a sweet Samoyed named Maggie.