A Christmas story: Katie's journey

Friday, December 23, 2016

By: Jeff Ash

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Part I: Not the flu


Last Christmas Eve, “the whole day, I felt completely drained,” Katie Gazlay says.


“I thought I had the flu. I wasn’t feeling well. I was throwing up.”


Gazlay, who lives in Gwinn, Michigan, near Marquette, had traveled down to Menominee, Michigan, to visit family.


But as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, Katie passed out. She was taken to the emergency room at Bay Area Medical Center in nearby Marinette.


The vomiting provided a clue.


Katie, just 33, was having a heart attack brought on by diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition. DKA is caused when the body can’t use glucose for fuel because of a lack of insulin and starts using fat instead. When that happens, chemicals called ketones build up in the body. In high levels, ketones are poisonous.


“My blood sugar was so high for so long, my body was going into shock,” says Katie, who had been diagnosed as pre-diabetic but not as diabetic.


Part II: ‘This lady cannot die’


Last Christmas Day, Katie Gazlay, just 33, had a heart attack. There was acid in her bloodstream. She was going into shock.


She was flown from Marinette to Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay. Dr. David Mathias, an interventional cardiologist with Aurora BayCare Cardiology, found that her heart was pumping at only 10 percent of capacity. A normal heart usually pumps at 60 percent.


Katie’s body was shutting down.


Mathias was determined to not lose this patient.


“It was Christmas, you know. This lady cannot die on Christmas. That was our goal,” he says.


Katie’s front wall artery was blocked. As heart attacks go, “that’s what’s known as the widowmaker,” Mathias says. He cleared Gazlay’s artery and administered drugs to dissolve the clot.


Even so, she remained critically ill, near death.


Part III: Life support


Dr. David Mathias, an interventional cardiologist with Aurora BayCare Cardiology, had cleared a blood clot from Katie Gazlay’s heart but she remained critically ill, near death.


It was Christmas Day last year.


The immediate goal was to try to stabilize Katie’s condition enough so that she might be transported to Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, perhaps to have an artificial heart implanted until a heart transplant could take place.


Mathias and a colleague, Dr. Alexander Roitstein of BayCare Clinic Cardiothoracic Surgery, put Katie on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. That’s a form of cardiopulmonary life support, a bit like an artificial heart. Blood is taken out of the body and circulated outside the body by a mechanical pump. Oxygen is added to the blood, which then is returned to the body.


“The ECMO was the only way we could keep her going,” Mathias says. “The ECMO bought us time.”


Randall R. Southards, a perfusionist with BayCare Clinic Cardiothoracic Surgery, monitored Katie’s condition and adjusted the ECMO settings for more than five hours.


The double punch of DKA and a weakened heart left Katie with a 5 percent chance of surviving. Yet the ECMO intervention and 16 hours of treatment at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay stabilized her condition enough to allow her to be flown to the Milwaukee hospital.



Part IV: Amazed


Last Christmas Day, somewhat stabilized after 16 hours of intensive care at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay, Katie Gazlay was flown to Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, which offers advanced heart failure care.


“She was still so sick,” says Dr. David Mathias, an interventional cardiologist with Aurora BayCare Cardiology.


Katie was on a ventilator for days, but she didn’t need an artificial heart. She didn’t need a heart transplant, either.


“They took her off the heart pump, and she kind of flew on her own,” Mathias says.


“I woke up and it was January 3,” Katie says. She had been unconscious since Christmas, a span of 10 days.


“After hearing about what happened, I was just amazed,” she says.


Amazed at her journey.


“If I hadn’t gone to the hospital, I’d be dead. They had the right people on staff, the right people working on me,” Katie says.


Amazed by the high quality of care. Amazed by Karen Ahonen, a nurse who spent most of Christmas Day at her side.


“It was a really cool thing to meet them all when I was awake. They were helping me through this process and encouraging me,” Katie says.


Part V: A year later


After surviving a heart attack last Christmas Day, Katie Gazlay spent six weeks recuperating at her parents’ home in Menominee, Michigan.


“We had a late Christmas,” she says.


Cardiac rehabilitation followed. Katie takes medication but has no lingering heart symptoms. Her heart’s pumping capacity, though still not back to normal, is much improved.


Katie returned to work part-time in May and full-time in August. She’s a customer service representative for a home services company in Marquette, Michigan.


Now, she says, “I’m doing really well.”


She’s hoping for a nice, quiet Christmas this year.


Almost a year later, her cardiologist is still amazed by it all.


“This lady should have died,” says Dr. David Mathias of Aurora BayCare Cardiology.


“You do this job long enough, and I’ve done this job long enough …”


His voice trails off. He pauses.


“There are some things you can’t explain.”



Katie Gazlay and her husband Garret enjoy a walk on a mild fall day.


Dr. David Mathias sees patients in Green Bay and Marinette. Call 800-236-6309 in Green Bay or 725-735-4200 in Marinette or request an appointment online. Dr. Alexander Roitstein sees patients at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay. For information, call 866-433-7953.


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