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Professor defies death, emerges with new understanding of relationships

December 13, 2012
Dell Rae Moellenberg

"My story is not pretty. I'm both the unluckiest and luckiest woman in the universe."

Jenn Matheson in a medically induced comaThis is Jenn Matheson’s profoundly true observation about the five months she spent hospitalized and near death. Matheson is a therapist and associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

It started out innocently: a June 2009 Alaskan cruise to celebrate her 40th birthday with her husband, parents and oldest brother. Arriving at home on a Wednesday, four of the five of them had a “respiratory something.” While the others luckily recovered, Matheson felt increasingly worse.

On Sunday night she went to urgent care and was sent home with Tylenol.

On Monday, she had a 103-degree fever and was gasping for air after climbing stairs. Back at urgent care, she was diagnosed with pneumonia in one lung and hospitalized.

She became increasingly ill, her oxygen levels dangerously low, and she struggled to breathe.

She doesn’t remember anything after lunch on Tuesday, but by Wednesday morning she was in the ICU. Her husband tells her she was frightened because she thought ICU was for people who are dying. Matheson’s fears were true, whether she remembers them or not. Doctors told her husband to call her parents, who live in another state, and tell them to get on the first flight. The Red Cross called her younger brother, who was on an aircraft carrier in the Middle East, to tell him to be on standby to fly home in case she died.

Now she had pneumonia in both lungs, but tests could not detect if it was bacterial, viral or fungal. She does not remember the hours of panic and increasingly difficult breathing, or finally asking to be induced into a coma for three to four days in order to be put on a ventilator. But three or four days turned into an incredible six weeks in a coma.

Just three days after she woke from the coma, still unable to move, speak or breathe on her own, she went into cardiac arrest. One nurse spent a heroic 45 minutes giving her CPR while hospital staff used paddles and every life-saving measure, finally reviving her.

Losing hope

Matheson, surrounded by family and friends, on her 40th birthday, Nov 10, 2009, while staying in her third hospital.  Similar scenarios played out over and over again for five months, Matheson says. The chaos of it made her so despondent and exhausted she no longer cared if she lived.

“It was like that movie Groundhog Day, only the day I was stuck in was a really, really bad day,” she says.

Three weeks after her heart stopped, when she was finally recovering enough to do simple things like sit up, she relapsed with MRSA (drug-resistant staph) infections in both of her lungs, plus at least one viral and one unidentifiable bacterial infection in her lungs.

She could barely breathe. Again.

“Human beings know when they are dying,” Matheson said. “I just wasn’t ready to fight it again. I thought if I survived it, I would always remain like this. The doctors predicted to my loved ones that I would die. I asked for a DNR (do not resuscitate), and my husband put one in place for me. He gave me the greatest gift to have that right.”

Matheson mouthed her goodbyes to her family and friends that night. Her husband got into her hospital bed to hold her one last time, and Matheson fell into her second induced coma as she was given a Hail Mary infusion of antibiotics and drugs, on the slim, doubtful chance she would respond.

And that was a lucky moment. There are many strains of MRSA, resistant to drugs. Matheson’s responded. Her family and friends, who had spent the night on vigil at the hospital, woke up to the news she was alive.

“I rebounded. I don’t know how,” she said. “I woke up the next day.”

Stepping on the road to recovery

After three long months in ICU, Matheson was transferred to a long-term acute care hospital where she began the laborious task of recovering simple things she once took for granted, like being able to stand up. After a month, she had walked just four steps. She was transferred to yet another rehab hospital to continue to recover.

“It felt like I was running a marathon all the time. I was trying to learn how to walk, but I couldn’t breathe. My lungs just wouldn’t function. The hospital told me they had never had a patient with oxygen needs like mine,” she said.

Today, Matheson has 30 percent damage to her lungs. She spent years recovering from the physical and emotional toll of her illness, which some of her doctors now believe may have been complicated with the deadly H1N1 flu virus of 2009. She was on oxygen 24/7 for years, then just at night until a month ago.

Looking back

Matheson is a licensed marriage and family therapist who, ironically, specializes in grief and loss counseling. Matheson looks back at her experience a changed person, having faced her own death, the ultimate grief and loss for an individual to grapple with.

She says one of the most powerful forces in her survival is the way that her relationships saved her, including friendships with CSU colleagues who spent shifts at the hospital and who helped her communicate with cue cards and by reading her lips when she was on a ventilator. And who made a powerful, life-saving pact with each other that they would make the nurses and doctors love her as a person and not see her as only a patient. They told hospital staff stories about Matheson every chance they could, as part of the pact.

Matheson today.“The way my friends and family demonstrated their connection to me was amazing,” Matheson said. “When I was in a coma, the doctors asked why my family and friends were so connected to me, and one of my co-workers said, ‘You haven’t met her yet. Wait until she wakes up.’ All of the nurses and doctors told me that I was somehow different to them, and that they couldn’t give up on me. They told me this is what they learned from me – to not give up on a patient. Because of my friends and family, I became their cause and that cause was bigger than me.”

Matheson carries a photo album of her doctors and nurses and many others at the hospital. She returned to the hospital after she had recovered to thank everyone who saved her – from the people who prepared the food for her feeding tube and cleaned her room, to the pulmonologist, whom she still sees every month, just to catch up. Her department colleagues founded a scholarship in her name at CSU to honor her fight and ultimate victory over her illness.

“I would not have survived without the people around me – my family and friends and coworkers. At some point, when I could no longer fight to survive for me, I did it for them.”

Read more about how his experience has changed Matheson and her advice for living life to the fullest.

Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg
Phone: (970) 491-6009