Survivor Story of Jeni Shaffer
It was August 16, 2020, and I was living with my dad and stepmother at the time. I remember waking up that morning feeling unusual. I had a strange sense of nausea and pain in my lower back. I rolled over, picked up the phone, and called work to let them know I wouldn’t be in that day. Even though it was cold, wet, and smelly, I loved my job as a fishmonger.
I rolled back over and went to sleep. Later that afternoon, I was laying across my bed, watching tv and hoping my stomachache would just go away. I was feeling anxious and had a sense of something not being right. At about 4:00, I suddenly felt like a sword went through my chest, so I sat straight up in bed. I’d felt nothing like that before – it was excruciating, and I was drenched in sweat. I laid back down, thinking it was heartburn from my sour stomach. It got stronger so I sat up and laid back down once more. By this time, I was dripping sweat and decided it wasn’t heartburn. I was having a heart attack! Dad and his wife were away at a birthday party for her granddaughter, so I grabbed the phone and called 911. The dispatcher stayed on the phone with me while I grabbed my wallet and keys. I staggered down the stairs, opened the garage door, and sat at the kitchen table. The dispatcher was a calming voice – which I was grateful for.
The ambulance pulled up and the paramedics came in with an EKG monitor. I pulled my wet t-shirt off and they wired me up. The next thing I knew, I was on a gurney, in an ambulance on my way to the hospital. One of the paramedics kept giving me nitroglycerine, telling me to let it dissolve under my tongue. I think I passed out. I have flashes of being rolled into the emergency room but then it all went dark. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital, clueless and confused. I saw a man in a lab coat – who turned out to be my surgeon. I asked him if I had a heart attack and he said “No, but you’re going in right now to have open-heart surgery.”
What? Wait! What the hell was going on? There was a phone at the foot of the bed, and I grabbed it and called dad. He just answered and I blurted out that I was going in for open-heart surgery and I was scared! I have no idea what he said because everything went black again.
My next memory was waking up in a haze in a hospital room with machines and wires all over me. I didn’t know what happened and had absolutely no memory of how I got there. Even though COVID was in full bloom, they let Dad come in and see me. For a while, I was in and out of consciousness. I knew that I was in the intensive care unit for a couple of days by the time I came around.
I had an Ascending Aortic Dissection. What the hell does that mean? Never heard of that…
My surgeon just happened to be one of the top cardiothoracic surgeons in the entire region – and he saved my life. He told me that a very small percentage of people survive an event like mine, and it was a good thing I called the ambulance when I did. The main reason so many people don’t make it is that what happened to me is all too often misdiagnosed as a heart attack. Funny – I thought the same thing. Who ever heard of an aortic dissection?
An Aortic Dissection is, simply put, when the lining of your aorta (the primary artery that carries blood out of the heart through to the rest of your body) tears from the inside out. The one accurate way of diagnosing a dissection is with a CT scan. If it takes too long to operate on it to stop the tearing, it will break through the aortic wall, and you can bleed out. You can die quickly.
Okay – now I knew what the heck an Aortic Dissection was. How they fix it is a whole other story.
Mine was “ascending,” which means that it is the section coming up right out of your heart (see above illustration). It is only a couple of inches long – but significant since it handles the brunt of the pressure. The surgeon put me on a Heart-Lung machine, so my blood and breathing were being done by a machine. Side note – when they put you on this machine, they want all your body functions to slow down as much as possible. They do this by putting you in a state of hypothermia. They place your head in ice to get your internal body temperature to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 degrees. I’m glad I was asleep because I really hate being cold!
So now they removed the section of my artery just above my heart and replaced it with a “plastic” tube. They can only go so far up because there are major arteries that branch off the aorta feeding into the rest of your body. So, my aorta tore past the point of the implant which often happens in cases like mine. What they do is “manage” or mitigate further tearing by keeping your blood pressure quite low and minimizing exertion.
After about 2 weeks I was sprung from the hospital, which was a little disconcerting. I couldn’t walk any further than a few steps without help. It was a long road back. Months…. After about 4 months I could go back to work on a very light schedule. On my first evening back I remember hosing down the fish cleaning room and feeling pain – terrible pain in my lower back. I went home and my stomach was sour. I ate thinking I was weak. Went to bed with a heating pad and laid there staring at the ceiling all night.
Dad came up to check on me in the morning and I just looked at him and he asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. I didn’t want to say it because I was afraid everyone would think I was crazy. Wrong.
I was dissecting again. This time my aorta split down to the iliac where it branches off to your legs. I told the doctors that the first time was so fun I figured I’d do it again…. What?
Now the big fun begins. They scheduled this surgery but kept me for observation to keep my blood pressure at an absolute minimum. They turned me into a human sloth.
This one was going to be very tricky. They were going to have to re-route a handful of the arteries that would now get blocked by the new implant and stent that would go all the way to the iliac. So, there were 3 surgeons in on this project. They also invited a representative from the company that makes the implants. I may as well have been surrounded by an audience. My surgery was written up for a medical publication. I’m famous – just under the name Jane Doe.
The whole hoopla was because of a special procedure called a Subclavian Bypass. The easiest way to explain it is that they left an artery with access from the aorta and linked the others (that were now blocked by the implant) to it to feed them with the blood for the rest of my body. Pretty cool, huh?
It was another long stay in Intensive Care, followed by another long recovery at home. I made myself get up and move around as best I could. I had to give up weight training and heavy exertion at work – and after having my chest split open, riding was out of the picture. Talk about emotions!
It has been almost 2 years. I’m kicking around but have to say I’ll never be the same physically. It’s ironic because you couldn’t stop me from going to the gym, riding when I had a horse, and working loads of hours. Physicality was my persona! It’s been a hard road filled with hard emotions and pure frustration. I’m always exhausted and lightheaded – but I squeeze work in when I can handle it.
Aside from a few broken bones over the years, I have a rebuilt knuckle on my right hand, two stainless steel knees, and now a bunch of hardware in my chest. A couple more surgeries and I’ll be the next Terminator…
I guess the moral of the story is to live your best life, be kind, and don’t take things for granted.
Whenever you’re faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge just let the world know nothing can keep you down as long as you’re breathing. It may be hard but never give up! I promise it’ll be worth the fight...