Against All Odds
Call it a miracle, or call it luck – these Oklahomans have survived extraordinary experiences.
We all know that our day-to-day is fraught with peril. At any moment, circumstances out of our control can seize power over our lives and put us in the most dangerous situations. But these six Oklahomans, with the help of some of the state’s most determined medical personnel, beat the odds and lived to tell their tales.
“It Was Just So Fast”
In May 2012, Oklahoma City was ablaze with celebration as the Thunder battled their way through the playoffs. But the celebration abruptly turned dark one evening, when shots rang out in Bricktown, and innocent people were caught in the crossfire.
One of the victims was Del City native Norman Richards II. The 22-year-old father and Thunder fan had left the game early with a friend and was walking east on Reno Avenue when there was a commotion to his right.
“As we turned and looked right, gunshots rang out,” Richards says. “It was just so fast.”
As the panicked crowds ran backward, Richards ran forward. It was then that a bullet pierced his back. He says he only remembers bits and pieces before he lost consciousness completely. He then died for the first of two times that evening.
Bystanders revived Richards, and he was rushed to the only Level One trauma center in the state, OU Medical Center. Dr. William S. Havron III, assistant professor of surgery at the OU College of Medicine, was the surgeon who held Richards’ life in his hands.
“Norman suffered numerous severe injuries,” says Havron, a trauma and critical care specialist. “When he arrived to the hospital, he was immediately intubated (had a breathing tube placed), and he was rapidly assessed.”
Within minutes of Richards’ arrival at the hospital, doctors detected blood around his heart and in his abdomen and rushed him to the operating room. There, he once more lost all his vital signs.
“I immediately performed a thoracotomy and opened the pericardium to drain the blood from around the heart,” Havron says. “In doing this, we were able to get his heart beating again.” Havron repaired four wounds to Norman’s heart alone before moving on to his abdomen, where the surgeon discovered damage to his diaphragm, liver, stomach, small intestine, colon and left kidney.
“Without immediate intervention, Norman would have died from his wounds,” Havron states.
In the end, Richards lost his left kidney and parts of his stomach, colon and small intestine. Miraculously, he kept his life. After a period of time on a ventilator, he was eventually able to breathe on his own. Although at major risk for infections and other complications from his injuries, his recovery was astonishing.
“He was amazing,” Havron says. “Once off the vent, he was working with physical therapy and doing everything and more than what we asked of him.”
“I was at OU Medical Center for 23 days,” Richards says, “and at Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Center for 10 days. They actually thought I would be in rehab until December, but it was only a week and a half.” His recovery continued at home where he spent months learning how to stand up straight and walk again. He says the experience was long and tough, but that with the support of his family, he pushed on. Today, he is medically recovered and has returned to his routine of multiple workouts per week and playing basketball.
Looking back on the experience, Richards describes it as humbling. He says the outpouring of kindness that came, even from strangers, as the citizens of Oklahoma City offered their support overwhelmed him.
“You enjoy every day to the fullest,” he says. “Also, a lot of people go through life not knowing how many people care about them. But waking up to all those cards and balloons and old friends was amazing. Knowing so many people cared about me – that’s the best part.
“Thank you to Dr. Havron and all the people at OU Medical Center and all of Oklahoma City.”
“Something Had To Be Done”
John White, an 86-year-old Claremore resident and Army Air Force veteran, wasn’t ready to slow down.
Although diagnosed with aortic stenosis – a condition in which the aortic valve is narrower than normal – he said he felt fine.
“The cardiologist looking after me asked if I had chest pains or shortness of breath,” White says. “I didn’t have either one. As time progressed, though, the shortness of breath got worse and worse. This cardiologist ran a test and said my aortic valve was calcified and getting smaller and smaller. But I still didn’t have symptoms.”
Not long after his diagnosis, however, White began to feel the effects of his condition.
“Especially during activities like yard work, I’d have to sit and rest after 12 or 15 feet of trimming,” he says. “It just got worse and worse. I had trouble sleeping because I was gagging. I finally told my wife that something had to be done.”
“Untreated, severe aortic stenosis leads to symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath, leg swelling and congestive heart failure,” says Dr. Kamran I. Muhammad, director of the Structural Heart Disease Program and Interventional Cardiology at the Oklahoma Heart Institute at Hillcrest Healthcare System. “Without treatment, half of the people who feel sick from this condition will die within an average of two years.”
One morning, after White could get no sleep due to his difficulty breathing, he went to his local hospital. He says he wasn’t sure, as he left his house, that it wasn’t for the last time.
The only solution was to replace the diseased valve in White’s heart. However, although he led an extremely active lifestyle, White’s age made open-heart surgery too risky. But Muhammad had an alternative plan in place: a new, high-tech operation that would avoid the surgical risks and extend White’s life. During this procedure, doctors would replace White’s faulty valve with a man-made one.
“Transcatheter aortic valve replacement was developed as a minimally-invasive alternative to open-heart surgery in high-risk patients with severe symptomatic aortic stenosis,” Muhammad says. “This exciting, minimally-invasive, life-saving therapy allows for treatment of severe aortic stenosis without open heart surgery.”
White noticed the change almost immediately after the procedure. “I’ll never forget when I woke from the anesthetic how much better I felt,” he says. “It was immediate. I was like, ‘Golly, I can breathe again!’”
“He was discharged home two days following the procedure,” Muhammad says of his patient. “He walked out of the hospital breathing better than he had in years.”
“I feel fine, especially for my age,” White says. “I just feel very fortunate that I was able to participate in this procedure, which just did wonders for me.”
Of the surgeon who gave him a new lease on life, he calls Muhammad “the greatest.”
“He is very dedicated to his profession, and I feel that he is doing what the good Lord meant for him to do,” White says. ‘I feel the same way about myself.’”
“It’s Just A Multisystem, Neurologic Shutdown”
“I had a bump on the cheek of my butt, and it kept itching,” says Denise Grant, a 57-year-old former nurse from Tulsa. “The next thing you know, it started oozing.”
Grant says the last thing she remembers before falling asleep was a trip to the bank. What nobody knew was that she had fallen into a diabetic coma, and as she lingered unconscious in her recliner for five days, her wound worsened. The small, itchy bump that Grant had noticed turned into a horrifyingly severe case of necrotizing fasciitis, or what is commonly referred to as “flesh-eating bacteria.”
Dr. Fred Crapse, Grant’s surgeon and the former chairman of the Department of Surgery at Oklahoma State University Medical Center, says that virtually any kind of wound can contract the aggressive bacteria. “This kind would have no trouble killing even a younger, healthier person than Denise,” he says.
“Right off the bat when I met her, her blood pressure was so low,” Crapse says. “She was on a ventilator and in renal failure. Her total system was shutting down from this infection. We rolled her over and saw the site of the infection, then took her to surgery to clean it out. A couple of hours later we checked on her, and she was still not doing well. The wound was actually worse.”
After cleaning the wound two more times, Crapse says the team finally got ahead of the invasive infection. By then, Grant had lost much of the flesh in the area. But within 36 hours, the medical team was able to take her off the ventilator, and her kidney function improved. Still, due to complications to her organs from the infection, multiple other surgeries had to be performed.
“When you get an infection like that, you have a systemic inflammatory response,” Crapse says. “Your lungs, your kidneys … it’s just a multisystem, neurologic shutdown.”
Grant’s recovery in the hospital lasted three long and painful months. Dr. David Chorley of OSU Medical Center, Grant’s family practitioner, describes the challenges his patient has faced during the seven years since the surgery that saved her life.
“Our post-operative care involved maintaining and preventing wounds from forming,” he says. “We weren’t always successful because the location of her wound was a huge pressure point. Post-hospital care largely involved dealing with the wounds and the healing of the scars. In addition, she had an imbalance in her body because she lacked her left gluteal mass. She was in a wheelchair that wasn’t designed for that, so we had to get adaptive equipment and materials.”
Grant continues to recover today and is focusing on improving her fitness and health so she can return to school and to nursing. Recently, she underwent reconstructive surgery to help repair the cavity left by her infection. Today, if one calls to leave a voicemail for her, a recording of her spirited singing voice greets the caller. She sings, she says, to help develop her lungs, which, like so much else, were damaged by the necrotizing fasciitis. Her favorite songs are by Etta James and Amy Winehouse.
“One of the parts of rehab is getting people back into normal stream of life,” Chorley says. “Somebody who’s in reasonable health who doesn’t abuse their body has a reasonable chance to reaching it to age 85,” Chorley says. “That’s my goal for Denise – I want to be there at her 85th birthday party.”
“I Owe Him My Life”
“I have had health problems all my life,” says 29-year-old Kyle Fleming of Sand Springs.
Since birth, Fleming has suffered from glycogen storage disease type Ib and chronic neutropenia, along with other disorders. For most of his life, he has been regularly treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. His white blood cells function poorly, and because of this, he is prone to infection. Because his liver is missing a crucial enzyme that processes sugar, his body does not turn glycogen in to glucose.
As a result, at any time, Fleming’s blood sugar levels could take a dangerous plummet. His inability to process sugar means that he had never even tasted it. For his entire life, he has been on a strict regimen of cornstarch and water every two hours. “I always had my cornstarch with me,” he says. “I could use an NG-tube at night that I would put down my nose and hook up to a machine to maintain my blood sugar while I slept. If I did not put the tube down, then I would simply wake up every two hours to take the cornstarch.”
“The primary defect in Kyle’s GSD is in his liver cells,” explains Dr. John P. Duffy, hepatobiliary and abdominal transplant surgeon at Integris Health in Oklahoma City. Together with colleagues Dr. Vivek Kohli, director of transplant and hepatobiliary surgery, and Dr. Lori Kautzman, another hepatobiliary and abdominal transplant surgeon, Duffy performed the operation that would forever change Fleming’s life.
As Fleming aged, Duffy explains, he began developing complications secondary to his GSD, including painful enlargement of his liver and growth of tumors – tumors which, if not operated upon, had the possibility of hemorrhaging or turning into liver cancer.
At first, when Fleming began suffering from severe stomach pains, he and his loved ones simply dismissed this as another symptom of his diseases. But as his pain persisted and grew more severe, he began to notice a larger bulge in his side.
“When I saw him for the first time, knowing he had GSD Ib, and seeing his painful and massively enlarged liver full of tumors, it was clear that he needed a liver transplant,” Duffy says.
However, due to past complications from operations and the necessity for immunosuppression medications, Fleming’s medical team had always considered a liver transplant too high-risk for their patient. Duffy admits that it was a difficult case, not only due to Fleming’s health risks, but because he needed a special exception to be placed on the transplant list.
“Getting Kyle transplanted was not exactly straightforward,” Duffy says. “The liver transplant allocation system appropriates livers based on severity of illness, and according to Kyle’s laboratory parameters, his liver function was normal and he would not be eligible for transplant.” Duffy and his team petitioned the transplant review board to grant an exception based on the severe dangers posed by his liver tumors and by hypoglycemia, and to everyone’s relief, it was granted.
Today, Fleming leads a very different life than the one he experienced before his liver transplant. His transplant was a success, and with the support of his sister and the medical teams at Integris, he was able to make a swift recovery from his operation. He no longer must ingest cornstarch every two hours in order to live, and can sleep uninterrupted through the night for the first time in his life.
“I feel I’ve been very blessed to have gotten on the transplant list, for receiving the transplant, for the phenomenal medical staff and for the entire thing going so well and allowing me to be with the people that are special to me,” he says. “Dr. Duffy is awesome. Even before the transplant, he assured me that he was confident in his ability to perform a good surgery, and he was able to set my doubtful mind at ease. I was told the transplant could take up to 10 hours, but Dr. Duffy completed mine and had me back in ICU within five-and-a-half hours. He has been there for me afterward and is very helpful if I have any questions … He is incredible. I owe him my life and couldn’t thank him enough.”
Duffy gives all the credit to his team and to the people of Oklahoma. “In reality, all of Oklahoma should take pride and satisfaction in seeing a patient like Kyle benefit from the generosity of the donor and donor’s family and from dedicated and hard-working Oklahomans. I tell patients that we surgeons are like UPS: we deliver the packages that are made available by the community. It really is a complete community effort and achievement.”
“The Next Thing I Remember …”
“It was just a regular Monday,” says 16-year-old Bixby resident Jonathan Fussell. “I got up, got ready and rode the bus to school. I don’t remember feeling bad or anything. When I got to fourth hour, which was biology, I just felt very tired and put my head down to take a nap. The next thing I remember was being in the hospital, and my mom telling me that my heart had stopped and I had been in sudden cardiac arrest.”
This wasn’t Fussell’s first brush with death. As a baby, he suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy, a disorder that causes poor heart function. His first heart transplant took place when he was 9 months old. Now, heart number two was failing. As his teacher performed emergency CPR and defibrillated Fussell’s heart, his classmates dialed 911 to summon emergency personnel to the scene.
“By the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital, (Jonathan’s father) David and I were already there,” says Fussell’s mother, Alexia. “When the door of the ambulance opened, the paramedic in the back said, ‘He’s alive! Thank God!’ Once I saw Jonathan, I knew he’d been through a lot of trauma that morning. I was grateful to see him awake.”
Fussell’s cardiac arrest was the result of his body experiencing a late rejection of his donor heart, says his doctor at Saint Francis Hospital. Pediatric interventional cardiologist Dr. Matthew Kimberling explains that Fussell suffered from post-transplant vasculopathy, a reaction of a heart recipient’s body that causes the arteries to inflame and narrow.
“There’s no real treatment for that,” Kimberling says.
As soon as test results confirmed the diagnosis – that every one of Fussell’s arteries was significantly narrowed due to vasculopathy – the doctor knew that another heart transplant was the only answer.
Meanwhile, Fussell underwent a second cardiac arrest while in ICU. Although he was quickly stabilized, it was a terrifying experience for the doctor who cared for him and his family. “I think he took about 10 years off my life that day,” Kimberling jokes.
Fussell was transported to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, one of the few pediatric transplant centers in the nation, where he received the third heart of his life.
“I had to spend the first six months in isolation,” he says of his recovery. “I couldn’t go anywhere, and I couldn’t be around other people … I couldn’t go to school, so I did online school. The first day I was allowed to go back to school, I walked into my science class, and my teacher was the teacher who did CPR on me last year. We laughed when we saw each other. That was cool.”
Since his procedure, Fussell’s life has returned to normal – or better. He volunteers at the Oklahoma Aquarium, loves art, and this summer, he will travel to China as a student ambassador. He also does Cross Fit and recently ran his first 5k.
“Most people think of transplant recipients as weak and sickly,” his mother says, “but Jonathan is out to show the world that transplant recipients can, and do, live normal, healthy lives.”
“I am proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished since my transplant,” Fussell says. “It wasn’t fast or easy, but I feel great, and I have a bright future ahead of me. Thanks to Diallo [Fussell’s donor], I get to be a teenager and do things that he didn’t get to do in his lifetime. I’m very grateful for that. Thank you, Diallo.”
“The Trickle of Blood Became A Gush”
On an August day during the 28th week of her second pregnancy, Rachael Daniels Rowland began her morning by spending time with her toddler son before heading to the gym before work. It was there that she first began to feel ill.
“As I was on the last machine, it felt like something slipped in my back,” Rowland says. “I got up and began feeling nauseous, so I sat in the floor, and then I laid down.”
A few seconds later, Rowland stood up, only to fall into a complete faint. “My head hit the hard tile floor, and the people working the front desk said they heard it all the way across the gym,” she says.
Witnesses say Rowland began to slowly bleed from her left ear and convulse. She was hurried to St. John Medical Center, where she came to briefly before, as she says, “the trickle of blood became a gush.”
Dr. Greg Rosenfeld, the neurosurgeon on call at St. John that day, says Rowland sustained an epidural hematoma – a blood clot between the skull and the lining that covers the brain.
“In the least-severe cases, a small collection of blood is inconsequential,” says Rosenfeld. “In severe cases, the blood clot gets larger and larger because it comes from the arterial supply. As it expands, it can cause pressure on brain, brain shift, strokes, brain damage or death.”
Determining that Rowland needed immediate brain surgery, Rosenfeld notified the St. John obstetrics team, who monitored the patient’s 28-week-old fetus as Rosenfeld performed an emergency craniotomy – an operation in which Rosenfeld drilled holes in Rowland’s skull and removed a flap of bone to find the bleeding on her brain.
“Rachael was very fortunate. With her situation, everything went so well,” says Rosenfeld. “The people (at the gym) called 911 right away. EMSA responded so quickly. ER doctors got a CT scan right away and called us immediately … If it could only happen like that all the time.”
“One of my first memories was waking up in the ICU and my husband telling me that our son Hunter was lucky to have a mom,” Rowland says. Miraculously, in less than a week’s time, Rowland was home with her family – including the yet-to-be-born Ali-Joy.
“I will always be grateful to the doctors and nurses at St. John hospital for what they did for me,” Rowland says. “They cared for my daughter and I when we could not care for ourselves. That is a gift I can never thank them enough for.”
Rowland describes her experience as bittersweet. “August 13th changed me forever,” she says. “It has been a journey getting back to feeling good and having the energy I used to have, a journey I am still walking out, but I would not trade the lessons I have learned. I try to take each day as a gift now.”