Beating the Odds: An Inspiring Story of Survival 

Survivor Lynn Gill and her husband Mike

On Aug. 16, Lynn Gill was admitted to ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital.She had become agitated, panicky and was showing signs of an evolving stroke. At times she was even babbling, according to her husband, Mike Gill.

Just one day later, Lynn made an important decision. “Dr. Stout stood at her bedside, looked her in the eye and asked, ‘Lynn, do you want to fight for this’,” recalls Mike, who wanted his wife to help make the choice about the surgery that might save her. “And she clearly replied ‘Yes’.”

Or so she’s told.

“I don’t remember much of what happened that day or for days afterward,” she says.

What happened is that Lynn underwent very risky aortic dissection surgery and survived, overcoming tremendous odds.

“Doctors and nurses have commented that it’s a miracle that I’m here,” she says. “And I don’t take that for granted.”

In the early morning hours of Aug. 16, Lynn couldn’t sleep. She felt a heaviness in her chest and throat.

“I felt like something was very wrong, and we should go to the emergency room,” she says.

So they drove from their home in Mukwonago to ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital. On call was ProHealth Care cardiologist Kooroush Saeian, MD, who examined her and ran tests.

“Lynn has had a kidney transplant and as a result is on immune suppression, plus she had a history of aortic enlargement,” says Dr. Saeian. “She was stable, and we admitted her. Later we did a chemical stress test to help determine the problem, and she didn’t do well. She was showing signs of having a stroke, and it was then that a CAT scan of the chest showed the dissection had occurred.”

In order to survive she would need surgery.

According to the National Institutes of Health, aortic dissection involves a tear in the wall of the major artery that carries blood out of the heart. As the tear progresses, blood flows between the layers of the blood vessel wall, dissecting it. The result can lead to a rupture and a decrease in the amount of blood that reaches the rest of the body.

Aortic dissection is life threatening and fewer than half of people with a ruptured aorta survive.

“It’s a very high mortality surgery even under the best of circumstances,” says Dr. Saeian. “Then add to that the immune suppressant drugs and her past transplant history.”

ProHealth Care cardiothoracic surgeon Mark Stout, MD, who performed the surgery, says, “I’ve probably done 100-plus surgeries for aortic dissection in my 25-year career. Given her history, this was higher risk than most. I think I told her husband that there was a 50-50 chance she would come through surgery. The chances of getting through it all without any serious complications was less than 10 percent. She really surprised us.”

The six-hour surgery involved circulatory arrest for 40 minutes during which Lynn’s body was chilled and the pumping of blood was suspended, Stout says. He also performed a graft to the right carotid artery, which was also dissected, in hopes of reversing the evolving stroke. Fortunately, it worked and post-operatively the stroke symptoms were alleviated.

The Gills give credit to Lynn’s physicians, of course, but also to the nurses and other staff members who were so helpful during her five days in the ICU post-surgery, her remaining time in the hospital and later at home. 

 “For the first 24 hours I don’t think Lynn’s ICU nurse ever left her bedside,” says Mike Gill. “I don’t even remember her leaving to go to the bathroom. Her expertise saw us through.”

The Gills also had a waiting room full of family and friends keeping vigil, including daughter, Jennifer, from Appleton; son, Justin, from Colorado; and Lynn’s brother from Beaver Dam. Friends from Kettle Moraine Community Church in North Prairie were praying on Lynn’s behalf.

“We had the best of everybody … all watching out for Lynn,” says her husband.

Dr. Saeian says aortic dissection is “one of the most catastrophic presentations you can have.”

“This is what most physicians hope they won’t have to deal with,” Dr. Saeian says. “But everything was in place, and it all worked out extremely well. I was there, the neurologist, the radiologist, the surgeon who had performed many such procedures. It wasn’t our first time around, and we knew what needed to be done.”

After Lynn returned home, fluid built up around her lungs, sending her back to the hospital for another two weeks. Still, progress has been steady and at no time was her new kidney in jeopardy.

“It’s performing back to the baseline, just as it was before surgery,” Dr. Saeian says.

Lynn is a quiet, thoughtful woman. She has been through a lot in her 63 years. Her kidney transplant is the result of polycystic kidney disease that also affects her liver. It is her kidney disease that caused the uncontrolled high blood pressure that led to the aortic dissection.

She also is appreciative.

“After the surgery, when I would go back for appointments, people would call me the ‘Miracle Woman’ or ‘Wonder Woman’,” she says. "I had the best people and the best circumstances. I was in good hands."

Dr. Stout says he admires Lynn’s tenacity.

“The fact that she has such a will to live is amazing,” he says. “Her post-op recovery has been pretty miraculous. She’s very inspirational.”