Published on February 24, 2012

Still Celebrating Life 10 Years After Open-Heart Surgery

Toni Nodurft Hartzell will never forget the Genesis caregivers who saved her life after she suffered a thoracic aortic dissection. It has been 10 years, and she still remembers them with awe and appreciation.

That’s why this Valentine’s Day she delivered large, heart-shaped cookies to the Genesis departments who were instrumental in saving her life. Written in frosting, the cookies said “Celebrate Life,” her life’s motto since surviving the medical emergency.

“I’ve had 10 more years to ‘Celebrate Life,’” says Toni, who works in Environmental Services at Genesis. “God is good. I have experienced 10 more years with my family and three greatgrandchildren -- thanks to the team effort everyone put forth to save my life and the support and prayers I had from my co-workers.

“I can remember their faces, their cards, their support.”

She recalls the day -- Feb. 11, 2002 -- like it was yesterday. She hasn’t looked at life the same way since.

“I was getting ready for work. I felt a burning sensation and something being pulled out of my chest. I laid down on the floor to catch my breath. A couple of minutes passed. I got up and went to the bedroom door and said, ‘Bob, you had better call the Durant Ambulance!’ They were at my doorstep in 4 minutes. I had no idea what was going on or how serious it might be.”

Quick action

She was transported the Genesis Medical Center, East Rusholme Street campus in Davenport. The chest x-ray didn’t show anything out of the ordinary. When the Emergency Department (E.D.) physician asked what she had been doing at the onset of her symptoms, she explained:

“‘I was getting ready for work, curling my hair. When I stood up to style it, I felt the burning sensation and something pulled from my chest.’ When he heard I had had my arms above my head, the physician immediately suspected a problem with the aorta.”

The results of a transesophageal echocardiography, an endoscopic/ultrasound test that provides an image of the heart, were not good. “From what I recall, the E.D. physician said, ‘Toni, it’s the worst thing to tell a patient. You have less than an hour to live and a 10 percent chance of surviving.’ “

Toni adds, “For the E.D. doctor to suspect what was wrong after learning I had lifted my arms over my head...I just feel the good Lord had his hand on the whole thing and gave me the best caregivers I could have had.”

Among those caregivers was cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Richard Sadler, who was called to perform her emergency surgery. “Nine hours, 24 units of blood and 12 units of platelets later, I made it through surgery,” Toni recalls.

Aortic dissection occurs when a tear in the inner wall of the aorta causes blood to flow between the layers of the wall and forces the layers apart. Aortic dissection is a medical emergency and can quickly lead to death, even with the best of treatment. It has a very high mortality rate.

To this day, Toni calls Dr. Sadler her “sweetheart.” Three months after her surgery, he and his wife, Dr. Nancy Sadler, surprised her by showing up at a Mother’s Day dinner in Port Byron, Ill., along with her children. She has a son, Bill Downing, and two daughters who also work at Genesis, Karen Einfeldt and Sharon Malone.

She had been in the hospital for 12 days. Several days after returning home, she experienced more complications, and it was Dr. Sadler who flew with her in the air ambulance to Iowa City during a snowstorm. To this day, she is grateful he allowed her son to pass security and get on the helicopter long enough to see his mother before she flew to University of Iowa Hospitals. Such compassion meant the world to her and her family, she says.

“The miracles to my recovery included a lot of prayers, a fast-acting ambulance service, the East E.D. doctors and nurses, Dr. Sadler and the Operating Room team, the Surgical Intensive Care Unit nurses, the nursing staff on 4 South and the rehabilitation staff. Eight months later, I was back to work in Environmental Services. My colleagues supported my recovery and transition back to work.”

The heart-shaped cookies, nine in all, are eaten and Valentine’s Day has passed. She, however, plans to always celebrate life and the Genesis caregivers and coworkers who had an impact in healing her heart. “I’m still amazed to be here,” she concludes.

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