Sabrina Robinson's Why
Sabrina Robinson was at home in Burlingame, Kansas, with her son, Zachary, when she suddenly got very hot. A licensed practical nurse in a cardiologist’s office, she thought she might be having a stroke. “I called 911,” she said, “but within a minute or two I became so short of breath and dizzy that I couldn’t talk, and Zachary took over.” He had just turned 6 the week before.
When EMS arrived, they didn’t detect anything wrong. Sabrina — aware that medical personnel doubted she had any problems — insisted on going to the hospital, which was in Topeka, Kansas, 35 miles away.
“I just started bawling,” said Sabrina, who was 36 at the time. “I thought I was going to die in the back of the ambulance with these people who thought I was faking it.”
Finally, halfway to Topeka, they determined that she was having a heart attack and switched on the lights and siren. The driver radioed the hospital that they were on the way. The catheterization lab was ready by the time she arrived, and there, a heart surgeon Sabrina knew told her that they couldn’t place a stent because her left anterior descending artery had torn.
“I knew all of these people, and I could tell from the looks on their faces that I was in trouble,” Sabrina said.
More bad news followed. Surgery was the only option, but it was complicated by the fact she had been given blood thinners, standard protocol for heart attack patients at that hospital. By then, husband Tony had arrived, and the two quickly embraced in the hallway before she underwent nearly 10 hours of surgery.
“When they got to that artery, there were tons of pieces of blood clots,” she said. “I just wasn’t getting blood supply to a part of my heart.”
The bottom of Sabrina’s heart had been deprived of blood for so long that it no longer functioned. Doctors were updating her husband, and initially, the outlook was grim.
“They came out an hour into the surgery and told him that I probably wasn’t going to live, and to prepare himself for that,” Sabrina said.
They weren’t exaggerating. It turned out that she has a rare condition called fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD), which makes arteries susceptible to tearing. Her heart attack had been caused by a tear in a blood vessel to the heart. Such a tear is called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).
Despite 18 sessions of cardiac rehab, three months after her surgery Sabrina’s ejection fraction, which measures how well the heart pumps, was well below normal, placing her at risk for sudden cardiac death. So doctors implanted a defibrillator, which she has nicknamed Gertrude: “So far Gertie has not gone off,” she said.
Sabrina also joined a study at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors are investigating FMD, which seems to affect otherwise healthy people. Genetic researchers are also involved, and son Zachary is being screened for the condition.
Sabrina went back to work at the hospital after recovering, and continues to work there while attending school to further her medical education. She will graduate with an R.N. in December 2016, on her 39th birthday. “Because of my experience, I don’t approach things like I used to. It makes me a lot more compassionate about what people are going through, and the fear that they have,” she said. “It was good for me to get a good eyeful of what’s on the other side.”
Sabrina said she never wants to make a patient feel like she did in the ambulance, when she felt like no one believed her.
Her why? “My patients are why. If they are going through something frightening, like bypass surgery, I feel I can talk with them and ease their fears without them even knowing that I’ve been through it myself. I’ve shared with very few patients what happened to me, mainly because their medical complication or surgery is not about me, it’s about them. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like their fears or problems are not important. But if someone is particularly fearful, then I will tell them, and I think it helps to see that I’m okay, and that they will be okay, too.”
That actually happened not too long ago: a patient needed a pacemaker but was fearful. “She was afraid that it would make her look different, that it would be big and stick out,” she said. Sabrina shut her door and told her that she had a pacemaker/ defibrillator and pulled her shirt to the side so the patient could see. “She said ‘I just see a little scar,’ and I just smiled and said ‘that’s all anyone will see on you, too!’ I don’t know if she finally decided to get it, but I hope she did.”
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