CLEVELAND — Tammie Purcell's heart health journey started a decade ago after one incident changed her entire life. And now she's encouraging others to take care of their heart as part of American Heart Health Month.
It was 2011 when Purcell was pregnant for the first time. The Mogadore resident said she chose to marry late and start a family later in life. She expected to have issues at 40 years old, but to her surprise, there were very few.
"I thought it was going to have issues getting pregnant and I did not have any issues at all," she said. "In fact, I had a very smooth pregnancy. It was, it was a nice pregnancy."
It was smooth right up to the weekend before school started back up. Purcell is a high school social studies teacher at Firestone High School in Akron. That was the weekend everything changed.
"I was walking down the hallway from the back door and it just out of nowhere it just felt like, gosh it's hard to even describe it. Really the pain was so massive that I immediately dropped to my knees. And I remember in all the pain thinking, 'the baby's fine.'" I knew the baby was fine, I knew it was all," Purcell recalled.
Purcell said her husband called 911 and within minutes an ambulance arrived at their home.
The 40-year-old woman was transported to Akron City Hospital. Purcell said when she arrived at the hospital she began describing her pain to the doctor on call inside the emergency room.
Almost immediately, she said, he described the pain as an aortic dissection. That's when the inner layer of the aorta tears and it compromises blood flow to the rest of the body. Purcell said the doctor's coworkers began doubting the diagnosis.
However, he was correct. Purcell called it a sign from God.
"He had read an article that aortic dissections can happen rarely, but they can in pregnant women because of the increased blood flow when you're pregnant."
After running a quick scan, his thought was proven. The machine showed a tear in Purcell's chest, just above her heart. There was no time to waste.
First doctors delivered her baby, William Joseph, who she would nickname Liam, by an emergency c-section. He was a healthy 6 lb. baby born four weeks early. But Purcell didn't get to share a moment with her newborn. It was time to take care of her emergency.
"It was like all these doctors were making decisions, but while they were making decisions, I was constantly moving on to the next," she said.
Just minutes after the c-section doctors were loading her into a helicopter to transport her to the Cleveland Clinic. Doctors there were preparing for surgery on her type A aortic dissection. That's where she met the Chief of Adult Cardiac Surgery, Dr. Eric Roselli.
“It was 10 years ago but I remember it really well," Roselli said.
Roselli said before Purcell even arrived on the Cleveland Clinic campus, he and a team of other medical professionals knew what was ahead of them.
"The general teaching in medical school is the risk of death is 1% or 2% per hour. So, most people are gone within a couple of days, if they don't get some emergency care right away," he said. "So we knew once we had the diagnosis that we had to get her treated immediately."
Once Purcell got into the operating room, doctors wasted no time getting to work.
"We reconstructed the aorta by building the arch and the part of the aorta where the blood vessels to the brain come off first. And then, after we get all that reconstructed, we can go back on the heart-lung machine and start to warm her up," Dr. Roselli recalled from the surgery. "While we have the heart stopped and we reconstruct the aorta down inside the heart, I was able to put her valve back together and save her valve."
Purcell was in surgery for a total of 10 hours. Roselli called it a success. The new mom remained in the hospital for a couple of weeks following the surgery. She met her son only once.
"I wanted out. The baby had been released from children's [hospital] and was staying at my parent's house and it was killing me," she recalled.
Following her traumatic day, Purcell has had a few smaller surgeries. But overall, her heart and aorta remain strong and healthy.
“I believe that I’m alive today because Georgio diagnosed me and that I’m healthy because Roselli fixed it," she said. "Not only am I healthy but they are they're keeping up to date on my health because not a lot of people have gotten this far and survived this much."
She meets with Roselli every couple of years for a check-up.
“I’ll be keeping track of her her whole life," he said. "And if something changes that we need to tackle we’ll be able to do it proactively, electively.”
Purcell said this wasn't just a routine emergency for her. Roselli, and the others involved that day, hold a special place in her heart.
“I told him there’s no one else that’s ever going to touch my heart," she said. "I've always called him a rock star because I just think his talent and his skill is astronomical. But beyond that, he's also incredibly hard working and his devotion to his craft is pretty, pretty phenomenal."
Roselli called their bond "inseparable."
But Purcell's journey with Roselli now involves her son, Liam.
When Liam was born on that frightful 2011 summer day, he was born with a small hole in his heart, called a ventricular septal defect (VSD). Purcell and doctors kept an eye on it as he grew. Around the time Liam turned five, doctors decided surgery was necessary to fix the growing hole.
Though Liam had his own doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s, Purcell asked Roselli to be inside the operating room during the surgery. Without hesitation, Roselli said, "yes."
Purcell said looking back at her emergency nearly 10 years later, she's grateful. She encourages others to be an advocate for their own health.
"I think it that has made me, kind of, a better person, I guess. There's definitely a part of me that's like, you know what we only live once. And if I had to do it again what I have gone through this like I did yeah I probably would."
In addition to February being recognized as Heart Health Month, Feb. 13 is also now recognized in Ohio as “Aortic Aneurysm Awareness Day” in order to help public health throughout the state.