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A Fighting Chance

Emergency Department

By Living Our Mission, Rebecca Mateiro and Michelle Adams Gave One Patient a New Lease on Life

The pain was unbearable.

Just moments after waking up and stepping onto her patio for a cigarette and a cup of coffee one crisp November morning, Michelle Weller was brought to her knees. A ripping sensation tore through her chest. She dropped her cigarette, stumbled inside and hollered for someone to call 911.

“I want to die,” Weller said. “That’s what I was thinking. The pain was that bad. I thought I was going to die.”

But nurses at Adventist Health Tehachapi Valley wouldn’t let her.

Weller’s nurses, Rebecca Mateiro and Michelle Adams, identified she was suffering from an aortic dissection, a serious condition occurring when the inner layer of the aortic blood vessel branching off the heart tears. It’s often fatal.

The dissection likely was caused by a combination of smoking, stress and heredity. The thought terrified Weller. She had been a smoker for 35 years and had ignored family members when they asked her to quit. She would stress easily over little things. Her father died of an aortic aneurism. Her brother died of an aortic dissection.

At a critical access hospital in a rural community, options for treatment for such a condition are limited. Mateiro and Adams called hospitals nearby to see if a cardiothoracic surgeon was available to perform immediate open-heart surgery. They found just one – Loma Linda University Medical Center, a Seventh-day Adventist institution.

Meanwhile, Weller’s pulse dropped to 20 beats per minute. Her kidneys began shutting down. She faded in and out of consciousness. A chaplain stood bedside.

After Weller’s daughter Heather Silva arrived, Mateiro placed her hands on her shoulders. She cried with her, and then prayed for her mother.

“I told her we would do what we could to give her a fighting chance,” Mateiro recalled. “She’s somebody’s mother. She has kids and a husband, and she’s somebody who really had a chance. She was going to make it – just as long as we got her the surgery she needed.”

Because of the smoke caused by wildfires blazing across Southern California, flying a helicopter into Loma Linda would be impossible for at least six hours.

“We can’t wait,” Mateiro told them. Within 30 minutes they had arranged an ambulance, inserted a breathing tube into Weller’s throat and packed everything they needed for the trip to keep her alive.

Adams and Mateiro traveled stayed by Weller’s side for the two-hour drive into Los Angeles, took down Silva’s phone number and provided her regular text updates throughout the evening.

“I remember them wheeling her out, and the nurses were right there with her. You wouldn’t expect going to work and then end up driving almost three hours with a patient. They didn’t even hesitate. I’m so thankful. They didn’t even think twice,” Silva said. “They were going to do whatever they had to do, and I felt she was in really good hands.”

When they arrived in Loma Linda, they were greeted by the surgeon, a team of nurses, and Weller’s son, who lives in Southern California. Mateiro and Adams gave him an update on his mother’s condition before traveling back to Tehachapi.

“If it weren’t for Michelle [Adams] and Rebecca [Mateiro], my mother would not be here right now,” Silva said. “I feel that in my heart. They saved her life.”

Her operation was ultimately a success, and the experience set Weller on a healthier path. She no longer smokes. She finds ways to reduce stress. She’s begun watching her diet and eating less.

She’s finding ways to be heart healthy so that she can be there for her five grandkids – including one due in April who has helped give her the determination to create healthier habits.

“I want to meet my grandchild,” she said.

And when she sees one of her family members smoking, she’s quick to reprimand them.

“All these years my family told me to quit smoking and that it would kill me. I came so close,” Weller said through tears. “I don’t want the people I care about to ever feel what I felt.”

Weller

Michele Weller, far right, poses for a photo with her daughter Heather Silva, and five-month-old granddaughter, Sienna