Mission St. Joseph’s saved my life

I am sitting at my computer, composing this response to Randy Siegel’s lament about his visit to the Mission St. Joseph’s emergency room (Mountain Xpress, April 19). I can write this letter because I am alive — and I am alive, in large part, because of my own visit to the Mission St. Joseph’s emergency room.

When I read Mr. Siegel’s account of his unfortunate experience in the ER, I was reminded of the studies showing that customers tell twice as many people about a bad experience as they do about a good one. Having had an exceptionally good experience with Mission St. Joe’s myself, I now feel a clear responsibility to buck the statistics.

In December 1998, I had a severe headache that lasted five days. Since it was Christmas week, I really didn’t want to go to the doctor. Also, I think I knew intuitively that I was seriously ill and just wanted to deny the whole thing.

My headache went away for several days and then, during the day on New Year’s Eve, it came back with a vengeance, accompanied by severe nausea. I finally gave in, called my husband at work, and asked if he could come home and drive me to the emergency room.

Since I live in Hendersonville, we started out at Pardee Hospital. Its emergency room receives the first of my commendations, because the triage nurse immediately recognized the severity of my condition from the symptoms I described. Pardee’s ER staff did a CT and a spinal tap, and the results fit with what they suspected — that I had a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.

This is an extremely grave situation: One-third of all the people who experience cerebral aneurysms die before they get to the hospital; another third die in the hospital; and, of the third who survive, 40 percent end up with neurological problems that make life difficult.

I’ve read many accounts of people with ruptured cerebral aneurysms going to an emergency room, being diagnosed with a migraine, getting some pain medication, and then being sent home — often to their death. So, obviously, I am extremely impressed that Pardee’s ER staff considered this possibility first, when I described my symptoms. After receiving the test results, they strongly recommended that I go to Mission St. Joe’s by ambulance, saying I might need brain surgery.

My first-ever trip in an ambulance was like a bad dream. At age 42, I had been in the hospital exactly twice — when I was born and then, 10 years ago, for minor outpatient surgery. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me: I might have to have brain surgery, and I might also die.

When I arrived at the Mission St. Joe’s ER, they were ready for me. I was taken straight to a cubicle, and tests were begun immediately. I went to radiology for an arteriogram, which verified that I did indeed have a ruptured aneurysm.

When I got back to the ER, the neurosurgeon from Mountain Neurology appeared and told my husband and me about the gravity of my condition, recommending immediate surgery to clip the aneurysm. I agreed to the surgery and began signing a series of forms. This was difficult, as I was experiencing double vision. Fortunately, I’d been given morphine at Pardee and so could not feel the extreme head pain. Next, the staff asked if I would like a chaplain to come pray with me before going into surgery, and I quickly said yes. The chaplain was in my ER cubicle within minutes.

I was probably in the ER for three hours before going into surgery, and the staff’s behavior was never less than professional and supportive. I remember being told many times that I was doing well. (I think, at that point, they meant that I was handling the situation well, not that I was physically well.)

Many of the staff members with whom I interacted had been called in — on New Year’s Eve, of all nights — to help. None of them ever gave the impression that it had been an imposition.

My surgery took about five hours and was very successful. I was so fortunate that such an excellent surgeon was on call that night. I was in Neuro-ICU for eight days and did suffer a complication called a vasospasm, which could have caused a stroke. But it was recognized and treated quickly, and the stroke was averted.

Throughout the time I was in Neuro-ICU, the nurses were extremely kind, caring and supportive. Nurses who weren’t even assigned to me would come in and tell me how well I was doing, and they also sang my surgeon’s praises. This certainly helped build my confidence during the most vulnerable period of my life. My condition improved, and I was transferred to the Neuro floor, where I remained for three days before being discharged.

My mother, a retired RN with 30 years of nursing experience, was extremely impressed with the professionalism and quality care she witnessed during my stay at Mission St. Joe’s. She’s also a major extrovert who couldn’t resist talking to numerous people in the waiting room. When she returned to my room, she would tell me that there were miracles going on throughout this hospital — people in extremely critical condition who were miraculously pulling through — due, in large part, to efforts of their doctors, nurses and other caregivers.

Several months after my hospital stay, my mother visited with my uncle for a week, when he was hospitalized for a serious lung condition. He was in a medical-school hospital in a state to the west of us. My mother said that the professionalism and quality of care at Mission St. Joe’s far exceeded what she witnessed in this teaching hospital. The difference, she said, was like night and day.

Still, it took some statements by my husband to make me fully realize what an outstanding hospital Mission St. Joe’s is. He is not easily impressed by health-care professionals, but several times over the past two months, he’s commented on how good the staff is at Mission St. Joe’s. Never before, he said, has he been to a doctor’s office or hospital where the staff were simultaneously so professional and so friendly as the folks at Mission.

Unfortunately, my arteriogram identified another aneurysm, and I had to return to Mission St. Joe’s in August 1999 for more brain surgery. Once again, I had an extremely positive experience. Since this aneurysm hadn’t ruptured, my recovery was easier, and 10 days after surgery, I was walking around at the Apple Festival in Hendersonville.

I am so very fortunate that, as one of the one-third who survive a brain aneurysm, I have suffered no permanent neurological damage. Physically, I am the same as before, except that now I have to wear reading glasses, and I do have a few dents in my head. It’s long overdue for me to express my heartfelt and profound thanks to the ER staff at Pardee and Mission St. Joe’s, as well as all the other staff who cared for me.

I’m sorry Mr. Siegel had such a negative experience. I’m sure a lot of his waiting was due to patients like me, who needed immediate care to stay alive. Or maybe he experienced an “off” day in the ER. My office works with the public all day, and 95 percent of the time, everything goes smoothly. But we are all human, and sometimes a combination of factors results in less positive interactions than we would like.

I think it’s important for everyone who’s not a health-care professional to think for a minute about what these people do. Could you do it? Could you insert the needle into the exact spot required for a spinal tap? Could you have made it through the education and training required for these jobs? I think many people have no idea of how rigorous and challenging their training is. I practically faint at the sight of blood, so I am in great awe of those who are able to perform numerous complex procedures on the human body, in order to keep it alive. People often complain about the high cost of health care, but what was done for me was priceless.

In closing, I would just like to share a thought with anyone who might end up in an emergency room in the future, for a non-life-threatening condition. You do need to be assertive — keep nagging for that ice bag or pain medication until you get it. But please be patient, and keep in mind that your wait may be a contributing factor in saving the lives of others.

[Ellen Westbrook works as a career counselor in Asheville.]

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2 thoughts on “Mission St. Joseph’s saved my life

  1. craig whitehead

    Please be aware that until a Doctor actually sees you in the ED, that they are not allowed to give you any type of medication. Ice bags, sheets, etc, yes (although if you have a fever, a blanket or sheet will not be given either).

    Please also be aware that people who came in after you may be going back first, due the fact that there are several areas of the ED and that one serving less emergent patients may have a room open up first. Also remember that ED staff do not know when a room will open up, be cleaned etc, so they are not able to tell you how long it will be until you are seen.

  2. Amy

    Now, I marvel at the thoughts of what Ms. Westbrook is up to now that she has recovered from her aneurysm. How tragic it must have been for her to endure such a life-altering event! Personally, I would like to thank her for sharing her story with us. She has inspired me to respect other people in a way I never thought possible.

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