By Konstantine Fekos
After participating in efforts to save Meadville resident Marion Wells from a potentially fatal heart attack early last year, Dr. John Wilson was asked how many times an emergency medical staff could administer a defibrillator shock.
He responded, “As many as it takes.”
In Wells’ case, teams from Meadville Medical Center, STAT MedEvac and UPMC Hamot in Erie had to shock her possibly more than 130 times to keep her alive; at least 80 times before medical staff ran out of paper to keep track and about 55 times in the ambulance on her way to Erie for treatment.
“Sometimes there’s an issue where you just can’t get people back again,” Wilson said. “She kept coming back between each shock. Not coming back to awareness, but her heart rhythm kept returning. She was still alive and she wasn’t dying in our (catheterization) lab that night.”
Wells and her husband, Jason, returned to Meadville Medical Center on Thursday afternoon to reunite with the medical staff they credit with saving her life and allowing her to live a normal, healthy life to this day.
“We’re super excited to see you like this,” Rob Carter of STAT MedEvac said upon greeting Wells in MMC’s emergency room. “We don’t always get to meet with the people we help.”
Wells shared some hugs and laughs with the staff wearing a red shirt, in honor of American Heart Month and the Go Red For Women initiative, which promotes awareness and advocacy for women with heart disease.
“For the longest time I just thought, ‘Why me? Why me?’” she said. “Then I shifted gears and realized it’s not about me. It’s about people I can educate an talk to about this.”
On a snowy night in late January 2013, Wells awoke to what she described as a squeezing sensation in her heart. Believing right away it could be a heart attack, she quickly researched the condition on her iPad, hastily took an uncertain amount of aspirin and woke her husband.
“I decided it was not a time to argue,” Jason said, recalling his decision to drive the three blocks down to Meadville Medical Center rather than send for an ambulance.
By the time they reached the emergency room, Wells claims she’d lost consciousness and her husband was later told to prepare for the worst.
Her heart attack was also followed by a stroke, brought on by the periods of low blood pressure during her arrhythmias, which miraculously left no lasting physical or mental damage, according to Wilson.
“I’ve been here about 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of Wells’ situation. “Her age is what she had going for her. Her young brain made a difference.”
Had she been significantly older than 38 at the time, Wilson said, Wells would’ve faced a lesser chance of recovering from her ordeal.
“We’d have done what we did anyway,” he added. “We just weren’t going to give up.”
As if Wells wasn’t put through enough, inclement weather kept STAT MedEvac helicopters grounded, forcing its medical technicians to defer to an equally-equipped ambulance.
“The weather was similar to the way it (was Thursday),” Heather Sauer of STAT MedEvac said. “It was a whiteout, low visibility. In the event of inclement weather, we routinely use an ambulance to complete the patient mission.”
Sauer and Carter stayed with Wells through efforts to stabilize her for about two hours in the MMC catheterization lab and an additional hour during the ride to Erie, where she rather ironically ran into an old friend.
“I worked almost 15 years and that’s the one day I didn’t want to walk in the door,” said Leslie Waid, a charge nurse for UPMC Hamot’s cardiac intensive care unit and a college friend of Wells. “It was scary.”
Waid was moved nearly to tears at the reunion Thursday afternoon, remembering her initial concern treating Wells after her potentially fatal experience, but eventually taking comfort in the fact she was able to support her dear friend in a time of need.
“When she’d been awake, stabilized, I was relieved she was where I worked,” Waid said.
Wells woke up in UPMC Hamot about a week after her heart attack with two stents in her right coronary artery and one additional, albeit emotional, shock — she was the talk of the ward.
“I had no idea what happened,” she said, recalling the idle chatter of nurses and strangers telling her how nice it was to meet her. “Finally I asked my mother-in-law and she told me.”
Wells remained hospitalized from early February to about mid-April. She remembered little from her experience, mostly bright lights and one shock in a sequence of almost constant defibrillation.
“Hearing it all, it’s a big experience,” she said. “I have fantastic people in my life who supported me and I even made some friends through it all. (MMC) in particular is a wonderful asset and a treasure.”
“We’re lucky to have such great care and service available,” Jason said, recalling when he and Wells eventually made plans to reach out and thank the staff responsible for helping her. “We just had a period of adjustment. (They) never left our thoughts.”
The couple is glad for their return to normalcy but still often think of how things could’ve ended differently.
“It hits me all the time,” Jason said. “But she’s still with me and that’s a big deal.”
“You have to laugh about it or it’ll eat you away,” Wells added. “Any time I have a bad day at work or something, I know things could be worse.”
Wells is progressing healthily nowadays and is working on exercising and eating a balanced diet to get back to how she was prior to the heart attack.
Aside from her gratefulness to the support she received, Wells took away the following lessons from her experience, lessons she hopes to one day teach others.
“Don’t ignore what your body is telling you,” she said. “Do not wait. And remember to chew the aspirin.”