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A fighting chance: 35-year smoker quits

Body, Smoking, Show on Corporate Home

Just moments after waking up and stepping onto her patio for a cigarette and a cup of coffee, Michelle Weller was brought to her knees. The pain was unbearable as 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 says. “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, diagnosed 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 was caused by a combination of smoking, stress and heredity. Michelle had been a smoker for 35 years, ignoring family members when they asked her to quit. She would stress easily over little things. Her father had died of an aortic aneurysm and her brother died of an aortic dissection. She was terrified.

At a critical access hospital in a rural community, options for treatment are limited. The nurses called hospitals nearby to see if a cardiothoracic surgeon was available to perform immediate open-heart surgery. They found just one — at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

Meanwhile, Michelle’s pulse dropped to 20 beats per minute. Her kidneys began shutting down. She faded in and out of consciousness, and a chaplain stood bedside. When her daughter Heather Silva arrived, Mateiro 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 recalls. “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 University Medical Center would be impossible.

“We can’t wait,” Mateiro told them. Within 30 minutes they had arranged an ambulance, inserted a breathing tube in Michelle’s throat and packed everything they needed to keep their patient alive.

Adams and Mateiro traveled alongside the ambulance for the two-hour drive into Loma Linda, and provided her daughter, Heather, with text updates.

“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,” Heather says. “They were going to do whatever they had to do, and I felt she was in really good hands. If it weren’t for Michelle (Adams) and Rebecca (Mateiro), my mother would not be here. They saved her life.”

Michelle’s operation was successful, and the experience set her on a healthier path. She no longer smokes. She finds ways to reduce stress in her life, and she’s begun watching her diet and limiting her portions. She’s finding ways to be heart healthy so that she can be there for her five grandkids (and a new one on the way).

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

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