Nurse Shares Her Experience on the Other Side of Care

February 18, 2015

Kathy Schwarz, RN

Sometimes nurses just know too much. They’re trained to be objective, remain calm and think critically about their patients’ care, but when it comes to their own health, it can be a different story.

Just ask Mercy Independence nurse Kathy Schwarz, RN, who experienced a personal health crisis last fall while working a shift in OB.

Kathy is the coordinator for the MercyKids Immunization Program and also works as needed in the obstetrics department and Mercy's Maternal & Infant Clinic. While working in OB one day, she was taking care of a baby in the nursery who was experiencing some difficulties. She left the OB area briefly to seek out charge nurse Meaghan Morris for a conversation about the baby’s status. But in the midst of the discussion, something weird happened. Kathy’s words just wouldn’t come.

“I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get it out,” she said. “And the words that did come out were garbled.

“I thought, ‘This is not good.’”

Nurse Meaghan recognized a problem right away.

“Meaghan said, ‘Smile for me,’” Kathy recalled, which I did and I guess my smile was crooked. She asked me if I could walk. I nodded, and then Meaghan said, ‘OK, we’re going to the ER.’

“I was thinking, ‘Stroke!’”

Kathy remembered that once in the emergency room, Dr. Aaron Watters and the co-workers were like “Johnny on the spot,” springing to action to connect monitors, check vitals and order tests to quickly diagnose her condition.

“They descended on my like a pack of wolves,” she said. “Snap! They were there.”

Kathy was indeed experiencing a mild ischemic stroke, the type of stroke that occurs when a clot blocks blood flow to the brain. And while her symptoms began to resolve while she was being treated in the ER, protocol called for a transfer to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, which was quickly arranged.

“Jerrod (Cooley) was the nurse, and he went out of his way to lessen my anxiety and coordinate everything,” Kathy said. “Dr. Watters explained everything clearly and in a timely manner while transport arrangements were made to take me to Wesley.

“My symptoms had mostly resolved by the time the ambulance arrived. From the time I arrived in our ER until the last test was done was only 40 minutes.”

While the stroke symptoms were classic and immediately recognized by our staff and Kathy herself, her ultimate diagnosis was something she never could have imagined and the episode had absolutely nothing to do with the stressful situation at work that day in OB. Specialized testing revealed Kathy, at age 54, had been living with a condition known as “Patent Foramen Ovale” – a hole in her heart – since birth.

“I had a hole in my heart for 54 years and didn’t even know it,” she said.

The tiny hole apparently allowed a small clot to pass through and move on to Kathy’s brain, causing the mild stroke, she explained. The hole was permanently repaired last month with a high-tech closure device she described as a tiny “umbrella” or “clamshell” inserted through a catheter that covers the hole and allows tissue to grow over the opening.

Since the stroke and procedure, a short-term prescription of blood thinners and routine follow-up with her cardiologist for the next few years are all that’s required for her long-term health, she explained.

“Throughout this experience, I thought about other stroke patients I’ve known in my career and even a fellow nurse who also suffered a stroke several years ago and has since had to deal with some very life-limiting challenges,” Kathy said. “It’s scary when you’re a nurse and know all the bad outcomes that can happen.”

But she credits the quick action of her co-workers in Independence for helping to diffuse what could have been a much more frightening and dangerous situation.

“Once I was transferred to the larger facility, I was impressed with their staff and how well they went about doing their jobs – but not any more than I was with our own staff in a small, community hospital in southeast Kansas,” she said. “We have a great team of people working here.”