Miracle recovery: Woman OK after risky heart surgery

Published: March 5, 2006 | 3682nd good news item since 2003

Allison Palmer thought she had the flu. She felt chills and spiked a high fever. In other words, she felt horrible.

Then it got worse.

At 18, a microbe that is literally everywhere nearly took her life.

Staph: Staphylococcus aureus. A spherical bacteria that commonly lives on the skin and nose of healthy individuals. It can cause skin infections, such as boils, pimples and abscesses. It can also cause more serious, life threatening illnesses, such as pneumonia, meningitis, septicemia and endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart’s inner lining.

Normally healthy individuals can fight off a staph infection, perhaps with the aid of antibiotics. But for Allison, a serious staph infection would be potentially deadly.

Allison was born with a deformity of her mitral valve, the valve that lets blood flow from the left atrium into the left ventricle of the heart.

It hadn’t caused her any problems so far, and it was closely monitored by her pediatrician. But having a deformity in the heart put her at a higher risk of suffering from endocarditis.

And she did.

A quickly developing staph infection filled Allison’s heart with large clumps, or vegetation, of bacteria, which infected the inner lining of her heart and destroyed one of her valves.

Then the bacteria spread throughout her body, putting her at high risk for a stroke, organ failure and putting her life at risk.

Allison’s heart was pumping blood backward, she was short of breath, weak, septic from the staph infection, drifting in and out of consciousness and her team of caregivers at Portneuf Medical Center worked to save her life, juggling her failing heart with a severe staph infection.

It was going to be risky, but they consulted her family and decided to operate.

Pocatello neurologist Dr. Robert Kennedy gave her a 95 to 100 percent chance of having a stroke. PMC’s heart and vascular center cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Jacob DeLaRosa gave her a 40 percent chance of surviving.

The surgery took six hours to complete. Replacing the valve was tricky due to the damage her heart sustained from the staph’s attack. Sutures to secure her new valve tore away from the wall of her heart because it was so infected. DeLaRosa’s team didn’t know if she would make it through.But she did.

Then, her caregivers, her family, mother Barbara, father Carl, and brother Zachary, plus members of their church congregation and countless other well-wishers around the nation waited to see if the predictions that she would likely have a stroke would come true, to see if she would wake up from the surgery at all.

And she did.

“By the next morning, about 6 hours later, she was awake, following commands and moving all her extremities – everything was there,” DeLaRosa said. “It was really a miracle that she was back, that she was functioning.”

Barbara also believes her daughter’s recovery is a miracle.

The Palmers are members of the Gate City Christian Church, in Chubbuck, and more than 50 members of the congregation filled the waiting rooms while Allison underwent open-heart surgery. The Palmers were also on many prayer chains across the country. The round-the-clock prayers and well-wishes of friends, family and fellow Christians comforted the Palmers throughout this ordeal.

“That is why she is here, because God was in there with Dr. DeLaRosa,” Barbara said. “We firmly believe that. That is why she is functioning and is whole.”

Miracles aside, Barbara believes her daughter would not have survived had it not been for the skills and caring attention of DeLaRosa and the large team of physicians and nursing staff who cared for her daughter throughout this crisis.

“It was overwhelming,” Barbara said. “You never know how much love and caring there is for you from those people who surround you until some crisis comes up and the support overwhelms you.”

Allison was largely unaware of what was going on throughout her illness and subsequent surgical procedure, and because of that, she now considers the fact that she almost died 39 days ago with disbelief.

“It freaks me out,” Allison said, while recovering in her room at her parents’ house. “I am flabbergasted by the whole thing.”

As unbelievable as it is, Allison said she’s walked away from the experience valuing her life, her family, her friends, and even her job more.

“I learned not to take things for granted because of this whole experience,” she said. “I am glad to be home and to be able to move on. I am so excited to go back to work next week. It’ll feel like my life is back to normal.”

Published in Life, Miracles, Science & Technology
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