Collaboration Leads to Holiday Miracle

Coming Soon:
Evelyn's Story
in video

For Evelyn Staley, Dec. 15, 2017 began like most Friday mornings. The 70-year-old Fairfield resident poured herself a cup of coffee, told her husband, Ron, that she was planning a trip to the Travis Air Force Base commissary and asked him to make a shopping list while she headed upstairs to shower and dress.

She made it upstairs but something didn't feel quite right. After sitting for a moment, she stood to walk to the shower and her legs and hip went numb. She collapsed onto the floor.

"I was conscious but I couldn't move. I was able to yell for my husband," she said. "He took one look at me and called 9-1-1."

The inner layers of Evelyn's aorta had torn. Without immediate care, she wouldn't survive.

"I remember being wheeled to the ambulance but that's really the last thing I remember … other than waking up at NorthBay (Medical Center) after surgery," she said. Evelyn Staley is recovering nicely after an emergency surgery to repair her aorta in December.

Because the Staleys live so close to the airbase, where Ron retired after 30 years of service, the ambulance took Evelyn to David Grant Medical Center. Her daughter, Rhonda Staley-Brooks rushed to the hospital to be there for her parents.

"She was conscious and talking the whole time and she kept saying she felt pain in her stomach," Rhonda said. "They asked her to try to sit up, but when she did, she felt pain in her chest and couldn't breathe." A scan of her chest soon revealed what was happening: aortic dissection.

One of the most challenging diseases in cardiovascular surgery, an aortic dissection is a serious condition in which the inner layer of the aorta, the large blood vessel branching off the heart, tears. Blood surges through the tear, causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate (dissect). If the blood-filled channel ruptures through the outside aortic wall, aortic dissection is often fatal.

In Evelyn's case, the dissection of the artery walls spread down into her iliac artery, explaining the leg and hip numbness and collapse.

Cardiothoracic surgeons Shea Pribyl, D.O., and Curtis Wozniak, M.D., were called. Both are Air Force doctors but also have privileges at NorthBay Medical Center.

Evelyn needed immediate emergency surgery but the ancillary support staff needed wasn't available at that moment at the base hospital.

"So we raced her to NorthBay Medical Center and they were nothing but amazing," explained Dr. Pribyl. "They got our call and said 'bring it on!'"

NorthBay Healthcare cardiac anesthesiologist Adam Tibble, M.D., assisted with the surgery, which itself is a marvel of modern medicine. Evelyn was put into deep hypothermic circulatory arrest.

"We cool the body down to 18-20 degrees Celsius while on cardiopulmonary bypass. So basically we cool them down and all the blood flow in the body is stopped," explained Dr. Pribyl. Then an ascending aorta (upper portion of the aorta) was replaced with a synthetic graft, and she was warmed up to restart circulation.

Dr. Pribyl said in Evelyn's case, she was in hypothermic circulatory arrest for about 24 minutes during the six-hour surgery.

That she made it to the hospital and through the surgery is a bit of a miracle.

"A large percentage of people who suffer this type of incident don't even make it to an emergency room," explained Dr. Pribyl. "And when they do, depending on the scenario, a large percentage will not make it through surgery."

Evelyn was able to be at home for Christmas with her family and is recovering wonderfully.

Her recovery includes medication to control her high blood pressure (a likely culprit in the incident) and continued exercise and movement to retain her strength. "I get a little tired, but they tell me that's a part of the process," she said.

"She is special, not just because of surviving but her family was unbelievably nice," added Dr. Pribyl. "I have learned since that she is considered the glue that holds her family together. So that makes it even more special."

Dr. Tibble agreed. "This was a very rewarding case for me as I am prior military," he said. "The family was strong, supportive, and a pleasure to take care of."

Dr. Pribyl is quick to credit Dr. Tibble as well as the quick actions of David Grant emergency room physician Michael Galante, M.D., who recognized what was happening and called the heart specialists and the NorthBay team into action. He also noted that St. Helena cardiothoracic surgeon Gasevoort Dunnington, M.D., came in to assist in the surgery.

"It was truly a collaborative effort and we could not have had a happier outcome," Dr. Pribyl said.

Rhonda notes that the after-surgery care from staff at NorthBay was also key to her mother's great outcome. "Everyone talks about the great doctors - and they were really great - but NorthBay's nurses were beyond phenomenal," she said. "I know them all by first name now. They were great."

Evelyn is thankful for all of those who cared for her, particularly the doctors who performed her surgery.

"They're my new bestest friends," she said with a smile. "They saved my life."