For nearly four months, Gina Pauley clung to life in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo. Complications after vascular surgery Nov. 23, 2011, left her at the brink of death, but her medical team, her family and her physical hardiness kept her alive.
In June, Pauley was able to return to her home in Berwick.
"I lived for a reason. I know there's a reason, but I'm not real sure what it is yet," Pauley said.
The trauma left Pauley without sensation and movement in either leg. She has been receiving physical therapy and learning to adapt to life in a wheelchair, with assistance from her children - Amber Luhring, Josh Firestone and Holly McGrew - and a devoted friend, Barb Faber.
They and other family members camped out at the hospital while Pauley struggled to stay alive. Now, they are staging a benefit for her Saturday at First Lutheran Church in Tiffin.
Pauley said aneurysms took the lives of her dad and a sister. Knowing the condition tends to run in families, Pauley decided to learn of her own risks. She had surgery for a brain aneurysm in 2004 at St. Vincent. Her physician also located an abdominal aortic aneurysm, but it did not pose a threat at that time. He continued to monitor its size.
An aneurysm is a bulge or tear that forms in a weakened segment of an artery or in a chamber of the heart. An abdominal aortic aneurysm tear claimed the life of actor John Ritter in 2003, when he was 54. Many aneurysms remain small and cause no symptoms; the more enlargement, the greater the risk of a rupture and massive blood loss.
"My other sister had two brain aneurysms and suffered through them. My other brother had a brain aneurysm and my other brother had an abdominal aneurysm. Then, it was my turn," Pauley said.
In September 2011, Pauley had rotator cuff surgery and started physical therapy for that. Then, her doctor discovered the aortic aneurysm had grown to the point where it needed repair. She made arrangements for the surgery at St. Vincent, never imagining she would be away from home for seven months.
The team of specialists included Dr. Gregory Kasper and Dr. Paul Clark. Although they successfully repaired the bulge, Pauley developed blood clots in her groin arteries. The team had to take her back to surgery to strip the vessels. During the night, she lost pulses in both legs.
"So in the middle of the night, at four o'clock, they took her in for emergency surgery. We didn't hear anything until 10 o'clock the next morning. Dr. Kasper came and talked to us and said where she clotted this time was up in the graft they put in the aorta. They had to take everything they did out, and start all over," Luhring said.
The lack of blood flow in her legs caused a severe build-up of fluid. The team performed fasciotomies on her thighs and lower legs, making vertical cuts to release fluid her clotted blood vessels could not control.
The family was called in to be with their mother as her condition worsened.
"They kept telling us they were sorry," Luhring said.
The thought of losing her mother brought on a panic attack and sent Luhring, who was 5 months pregnant at the time, to the emergency room.
In the meantime, Pauley flatlined four times, and her kidneys shut down. She was given a tracheotomy to help her breathe and was placed on oxygen and continuous dialysis in the trauma ICU. Her body temperature shot up to 104 degrees.
"They didn't even have a waiting room. We sat in the hallway right at the door. There were eight of us, sometimes more. On Thanksgiving day, we sat on the floor every day from 6 a.m. until we left late in the evening," Luhring said.
From that vantage point, they could question the nurses and physicians coming and going. Faber said someone finally brought them chairs. Luhring took a leave of absence from her job and drove to Toledo every day. She said if she didn't go, she found herself worrying and calling people who did go.
The first week, when Dr. Clark was not sure Pauley would pull through, he told her loved ones to pray.
"I said 'I've known her since we were 18. She's the most stubborn, bullheaded, contrary person there is. She'll make it," Faber said. "She's got a lot of faith. She's got God in her pocket, and she's a pretty determined lady."
Pauley's name was on numerous prayer lists. Someone had given her a prayer blanket to take to the hospital, and it was with her every day.
"It was like God wrapped his arms around me. that's what I felt like," Pauley said.
The fasciotomies and Pauley's abdominal incision had to remain open for weeks because excessive swelling made it impossible to close the wounds. Because she remained unconscious and unresponsive, the doctors kept doing CT scans to check brain activity.
One nurse even advised the family to "let her go." They contacted Dr. Clark and asked him to remove that person from the team. He agreed.
"We spent Christmas time and all of our birthdays at the hospital. We were only allowed to have two visitors in ICU, but on Christmas Day, they let us all go back to see her at the same time," Luhring said.
"I don't remember any of that," Pauley said. "When I woke up at St. V, I couldn't move my legs, and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't move my legs, even though they told me. ... I thought they had put fake legs on me. I thought that for a long time."
After Christmas, Pauley was moved across the street to the vascular ICU. In January, she improved enough for the fasciotomies on her legs to be closed.
The nurse said skin from Pauley's thigh was grafted to close the cuts. From that point, Pauley kept getting better.
Jan. 15, Pauley talked to her daughter on the phone to say "I love you, baby girl."
All the doctors proclaimed Pauley "a miracle" to have survived so much trauma. The medical staff and others started coming to see "the miracle lady."
At the time, Pauley didn't know they meant her. Some even wept during their visits.
Later in the month, Pauley was able to breathe on her own, eat and drink. Her stomach wound continued to mend.
Feb. 14, Pauley was moved to a rehabilitation facility. Her medications, built-up toxins and the aftermath of all the trauma still were clouding her thinking.
Luhring said "the fog" started to lift in March.
By June, Pauley was released to go home and adjust to her new "normal." She said it was "like a breath of fresh air" to put her struggles behind her and start living again.
Even so, Pauley was emotionally drained and angry at God when she first got home. A wheelchair was her means of mobility.
"It was very difficult at first," Pauley said. "Just learning to sit up was difficult. I think about how far I've come. I've learned to get in and out of bed, to transfer myself to the couch or to the car with my board. I can take a shower by myself. change my brace, cook, do my own laundry. I clean my own wounds now."
Faber spends much of the day with Pauley, giving her assistance, transportation and moral support. Pauley's children call frequently and bring the grandchildren over to visit.
"I'm not really here by myself. God's with me. He helps me to cope, he give me strength, he gives me love, he gives me hope," she said.
Pauley's hopes include paying her medical bills and saving enough money to purchase a van with hand controls and a wheelchair lift.