After she was awakened by her husband's screams and found him in distress in the living room of their suburban Houston home early Jan. 2, Patricia Green let the emergency responders decide where to take him for treatment.
The ambulance crew determined Clifford Green was having a heart attack and rushed him to St. Luke's Health — The Woodlands, about 25 minutes away. While in the hospital's cardiology lab being evaluated, Clifford went into cardiac arrest, prompting the cardiology team and emergency responders to start CPR. They kept at it for what cardiac surgeon Dr. Vivek Patel calls an "unheard of" 60 minutes.
The long resuscitation was the start of a two-month hospitalization for Clifford that included 18 days in a coma, weeks on machines that functioned for his heart, lungs and kidneys, and five surgeries. That stay was followed by 2½ months in rehab, at the end of which, to the amazement of his family and some of his care providers, Clifford left St. Luke's in mid-May and returned home using a walker but untethered to any devices.
"I'm so grateful that they took him there," Patricia says of St. Luke's Health — The Woodlands. "I just think the outcome would have been different had they taken him anywhere else."
'They were all thanking me'
In August, about three months after his discharge, Clifford and Patricia, along with some of their four children and eight grandchildren, got a chance to thank the first responders and St. Luke's staffers who were part of the colossal lifesaving effort.
The Greens sat in the front row at a tear-filled reunion event arranged by St. Luke's. Several of the dozens of people who had come to Clifford's rescue — paramedics, doctors, nurses, therapists and more —spoke about how much his survival meant to them.
The outpouring of emotion left Clifford dumbstruck. "It was just unbelievable to me, because I'm sitting there wanting to thank them for saving my life and instead they were all thanking me for letting them be a part of my life," he recalls.
Patel says seeing the 59-year-old walk into the reunion was an emotional experience for many who had witnessed Clifford's worst hours. "He was the sickest patient in the hospital for at least a month," the surgeon says.
Unrelenting team effort
The medical team had been aware that Clifford's situation was dire from the moment he arrived at St. Luke's — The Woodlands. The 242-bed hospital is part of Houston-based St. Luke's Health System, a subsystem of CommonSpirit Health.
With adult patients like Clifford who are in cardiac arrest, medical teams usually keep CPR brief. "The reason is, after 15 or 20 minutes of CPR, the risk of having a stroke that's unrecoverable is so high," Patel explains.
But in Clifford's case, Patel and his colleagues saw that the lengthy resuscitation effort was working, with blood getting to the heart and Clifford rallying. Patel was among the doctors who decided that Clifford was strong enough for the next step, connection to an ECMO machine that took over for his heart and lungs. Then, Dr. Shareez Peerbhai, a cardiologist, put in a stent to open a coronary artery that was completely blocked.
Even with the blockage cleared and a machine handling breathing and blood flow, Clifford's situation was touch and go for several days. In what came as no surprise to his doctors, he suffered a stroke and kidney failure as a result of the resuscitation effort. He needed to be heavily medicated and on dialysis.
"That was when I had to motivate the team quite a bit," Patel recalls. "I'm like, I know it looks hopeless, but we just have to wait and see what he does."
Prayers and compassion
During the 18 days Clifford was in a coma, staffers made regular stops to his ICU room to reassure the family members who were a constant presence at his bedside. Patricia says the family developed close relationships with many of those workers, one of whom was housekeeper Isabel Cumpian. Patricia describes her as "an angel on Earth."
Even though Cumpian mainly speaks Spanish, Patricia says the Green family felt her compassion and was heartened by her belief that Clifford would recover. "She would comb his hair, she would massage his neck, and she would rub his hands and she would pray," Patricia says. "She speaks broken English, but she would close her eyes and pray these amazing prayers."
Clifford and Patricia believe Clifford's release from ICU and eventual recovery was in no small part due to those and others' prayers as well as the relentless effort of the St. Luke's team. "We really do give God every bit of the glory because he put these people in our lives," Patricia says.
During Clifford's hospitalization, Patel performed five surgeries and a dozen or so bedside procedures on him. One of the final surgeries was to remove a bleeding section of his colon. That rupture was unrelated to Clifford's heart attack and the repair wasn't within Patel's area of expertise, but the cardiac surgeon stepped in because, after the trauma of his heart attack, any operation on Clifford was extra risky.
"Somehow, after all that, he came off dialysis, came off the ventilator and walked before he left the hospital," Patel says.
Clifford's discharge and the all-out team effort that led to it inspired Patel and his colleagues at St. Luke's. "I think we don't do enough of recognizing and celebrating these types of stories because it helps us recognize our staff and all the work that everyone does," he says.
Clifford's recovery continues. By mid-August, he'd lost a section of his left foot and was anticipating the removal of his right leg just below the knee. He says the amputations, the result of the loss of blood flow amid the massive effort to save him, are "a small price to pay" to resume his life. He's uncertain whether he'll be able to return to his job of 30 years with Siemens Building Technologies that involves controlling heating, ventilation and air conditioning units on large campuses.
Months after his return home, Clifford still chokes up when he discusses his St. Luke's caregivers. "I don't think I was just a statistic in their mind," he says. "I felt that they truly cared, and for that I'll forever be grateful."