It's a Miracle: Three Women's Stories of Survival

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Rhonda Mullen

"I Was Literally Torn Apart."
Rhonda survived an aortic dissection.

"I was very scared. I wanted to stop but there was almost no one else on the road. I told myself I had to do this on my own if I was going to see my family again."

Rhonda Mullen, 38, decided to go to her doctor for a physical after a young woman she knew died suddenly. "They checked my heart and I got all the right tests. Everything was perfectly fine," says Mullen, the mother of two young children, Liam and Rori. That makes what happened three weeks later even more shocking.

On a Saturday morning in February 2010, while talking with a customer at the suburban Chicago bank where she works, Mullen was hit between the shoulder blades with searing pain so intense she could barely catch her breath. Was it a pinched nerve? Heart attack? Stroke? Nothing made sense, but something was very wrong. She got in her car and headed to the nearest hospital, the one where her babies had been born. She felt tingling sensations and numbness in her legs as she drove. "I was very scared," she says. "I wanted to stop but there was almost no one else on the road so I thought no one could save me. I refocused and told myself I had to do this on my own if I was going to see my family again." By the time she reached the ER she was barely able to work the pedals of the car. Excruciating pain shot through her back, and the tingling seemed to be going everywhere. "It was like everything was shutting off," she says. She actually parked the car and tried to walk before someone spotted her and ran to get help to wheel her into the ER.

A CT scan revealed that Mullen had a tear in her aorta, the major artery feeding blood from the heart through the torso to the rest of the body. Aortic dissection, as the condition is known, happens suddenly, so it could not have been detected during her earlier checkup. (It's what killed the actor John Ritter in 2003.) But doctors couldn't explain why a tear would occur in a young woman with no known risk factors. Mullen's only hope was emergency surgery at the nearest hospital that could handle the procedure, Loyola University Medical Center. Her condition was so precarious that the medical team worried that jostling during the 30-minute ambulance ride to Loyola could make the tear worse. "It could be fatal if we hit a bad pothole," Mullen says.

Mullen's loss of feeling in her legs was a bad sign to Ross Milner, MD, chief of Loyola's division of vascular surgery. The tear was huge. "It ran about two feet from her upper chest all the way down to the arteries of both legs," he says. "Muscles and nerves in the right leg had no blood at all and the leg was rigid." If Mullen was lucky enough to live, she could lose both limbs at the hip. "I was just trying to get the pain in my back to stop," Mullen says. "I tuned in when I heard the doctors talk about whether I'd survive."

When Mullen's husband, Glenn, joined her at the hospital, Dr. Milner struggled to tell him he might lose his wife that night. "We're about the same age and have kids," the doctor says. "We were both fighting back tears." Glenn and Rhonda had known each other half their lives and been married for 10 years. "He looked devastated," she says. "I told him I'd see him when this was all over. Then we kissed and they started the anesthesia."

During the risky four-hour operation, Dr. Milner bypassed the torn aorta with a quarter-inch-wide Gore-Tex tube between two and three feet long, which would then permanently deliver blood to Mullen's lower body. Incisions in her legs relieved severe swelling as blood flow was restored. A day after surgery Mullen opened her eyes in intensive care to see Glenn enter the room. "He had a wonderful grin on his face, kissed my forehead and held my hand," she says. Not only had she survived, but she could move her thighs, bend her legs, and wiggle her toes. "The doctors and nurses were really excited," she says.

A long rehab road still lay ahead. First came tough therapy to master basics like lifting her legs and standing without assistance. "Just sitting in a chair was exhausting," she says. But she quickly moved from a walker to crutches -- and soon was even walking up the stairs.

"She's a very strong-willed person and that makes a huge difference," Dr. Milner says. "I've never seen anyone recover from a blood-supply loss that severe." Today Mullen walks with only slightly limited motion in her right ankle and toes and is back to working part time. "I can do everything I want to do," she says. "Live in the now" has become her family motto.

 

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