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“The Code Blue was me”

January 18, 2023

HSC patient commits to “gratitude for life” donations

Grateful patient, Rev. Donna Smalley: “I had two major surgeries, two cardiac arrests, and aspiration pneumonia, all within 48 hours. My stay at HSC ended up being five weeks, fighting for my life, but I made it!”

Some called her the “Comeback Woman”; others called her the “Miracle Woman”. But Rev. Donna Smalley simply calls herself fortunate. And grateful.

In 2016, Smalley was diagnosed with achalasia, a rare condition that makes it difficult to swallow—a one in 100,000 condition. Achalasia can attack the nerves in your esophagus and, in Smalley’s case, it was accompanied by painful spasms.

“My situation got worse and worse. By March 2018, they said that my esophagus was dead. I couldn’t even get liquids down,” says Smalley.

Her HSC physicians determined that the only option was an esophagectomy, a complex open surgery that involved removing most of the esophagus and then reconstructing part of the stomach into a tube and attaching it to what remained of the esophagus. The procedure is rarely used for achalasia, but it made sense in Smalley’s case.

“My surgeon was talking with my husband and daughter after my surgery and had to race away for a ‘Code Blue’. A patient was going into cardiac arrest,” says Smalley. “It turns out the Code Blue was me. They had to perform CPR on me in the recovery room.”

Later that evening, with Smalley seemingly stable, she was transferred to a step-down unit. A nurse noticed Smalley’s laboured breathing and some unexpected blood. It turns out that the surgeons needed to go back in to repair a leak, but before that could happen, she had another cardiac arrest. Again, she was saved by CPR.

“I had two major surgeries, two cardiac arrests, and aspiration pneumonia, all within 48 hours,” says Smalley. “My stay at HSC ended up being five weeks, fighting for my life, but I made it!”

She is forever grateful for the skill and commitment of Drs. Gordon Buduhan, Rachel Eikelboom, and Andrea Darnbrough, and all of the frontline health care workers who helped her along the way. Today, she is under the ongoing expert care of thoracic surgeon Dr. Richard Liu of HSC’s state-of-the-art Wilf Taillieu Thoracic Surgery Clinic and Endoscopy Unit.

Along with the outstanding medical care, Smalley will also be forever grateful for the kindnesses shown to her while she recovered in hospital: the nurse’s aide who washed Smalley’s hair while singing to her, the charge nurse who would sit with Smalley talking through some difficult nights, and others.

“My husband and I are so grateful for the care I received, and still receive,” she says. “We are now making ‘gratitude for life’ donations in honour of the Taillieu Clinic. With much respect, I thank HSC staff and the HSC Foundation for my very life.”

 

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