Never Losing Heart

A Miracle Of Determination, True Grit And Love

Linda Nieldbalski, pictured at center, is on the road to recovery following a harrowing medical incident. Submitted photos

DUNKIRK — On a typical January Monday one year ago, 53-year old Linda Niedbalski, vice president, business development officer at M&T Bank, headed to meet a client for a morning appointment. Shortly after that meeting, Linda felt an unusual sensation penetrating into her back and jaw, along with a feeling in her chest she describes as acid reflux.

Presuming these symptoms were related to a hot flash, or possibly the flu, Linda headed back home to rest for the remainder of the day. Upon her arrival, however, Eric Niedbalski noticed his wife didn’t look well, and insisted they head to the Brooks Hospital emergency department. Eric’s resolve proved to be the decision of a lifetime, as moments after arriving at the hospital, Linda collapsed into cardiac arrest.

Michael Klein, DO, emergency department physician at Brooks Memorial Hospital, remembers that day clearly. “Linda was in bed No. 5 suffering a massive heart attack. Her heart quivered with ventricular fibrillation, which caused her blood pressure to plummet. I’ll be honest, it didn’t look good.”

Forty-five minutes into CPR, shocks to the heart with a defibrillator, and multiple medication administrations, Dr. Klein approached Eric with words a husband never wants to hear. Linda wasn’t expected to make it.

An unusual twist and turn of events

Those who know Linda’s moxie will not be surprised to hear that this day was far from being her last. Despite the bleak prognosis, she stabilized and joined in the conversation between her doctor and husband. Once again, however, she went into cardiac arrest.

With the heart, soul and will of a tiger, again Linda stabilized, attempted to get out of bed and proceeded to speak with her nurses. Then again, she went into cardiac arrest.

This cycle went on for three and a half hours and 77 defibrillation shocks to the heart.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” shares ED nurse Constance Minnich, RN. Colleague, Phoebe Long, RN concurred. In all their combined years in emergency medicine, Constance, Phoebe and teammate Sara Couchman, RN say this was definitely a first.

“Patients in cardiac arrest from ventricular fibrillation are almost without exception, unconscious. Linda would have periods where she was in ventricular fibrillation but still be awake. This was astounding for us to see,” Dr. Klein added.

Josh Newark, EMT-Paramedic with Alstar EMS, added, “I had just finished dropping off another patient by ambulance, witnessed all the activity, and figured I better stick around,” Newark said. Josh and his partner Liz Adkins — EMT, later transported Linda to Buffalo General Medical Center where dedicated heart specialists offer state-of-the-art technology for advanced cardiac surgery. The Dunkirk-Buffalo trip is one that Alstar makes regularly to facilitate coordinated care between Brooks Memorial Hospital, and specialized facilities within the Kaleida Health system.

Linda was transferred to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester where she was a candidate for a heart transplant. For two grueling weeks, Linda was on life support and later placed in a medically induced coma. Upon waking, she learned that her legs had been amputated just above the knees due to the loss of blood flow to her organs related to the heart attack. Thankfully, Linda kept her own heart and her hips, but not before two additional surgical revisions to her legs.

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Fast Forward

Just over one year later, Linda’s infectious laughter is a well-known presence throughout Brooks as she undergoes rigorous rehabilitation and physical therapy three times each week.

“I had to re-learn everything, from talking to feeding myself. To hear me today, you would never know that,” Linda laughs. In fact, she rarely stops laughing and smiling. But she does on occasion, just long enough to look at her husband and best friend Eric, and grab his hand.

Kristen Wallace, physical therapist, describes her as fierce. “We’re helping her learn to walk with prosthesis by strengthening her core muscles. She’s recently walked 320 feet. She’s incredibly strong willed with an amazing character,” Kristen said.

“I miss wearing my suits to work and I get painful ghost pains in my feet,” Linda said. Other than that, there isn’t a negative or defeated word from her. “I want to do everything I used to do, like ride our four-wheeler, garden, walk up the stairs to my master bedroom and drive,” she said.

There isn’t a staff member at Brooks, or friend, or family member who doesn’t believe she’ll do all of that and more.

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Hearts And Hands

“The individual doing chest compressions is often the unsung hero in a code situation,” shares Dr. Klein. In Linda’s situation, the chest compressions were done by the nurses, medical assistants, respiratory therapist, EMTs and paramedics, all of whom are trained in CPR.

“It truly is amazing that her brain and neurologic system survived completely intact,” Dr. Klein said. “I think a part is certainly Linda’s will to live and fierce determination. I think the other big factor is that she received effective chest compressions throughout the entire resuscitation. Chest compressions done effectively maintain blood flow to the brain while the heart is not pumping.”

The Niedbalski’s credit Dr. Klein and the entire ED team, nurses, medical assistants, pharmacist, EMTs, respiratory therapists and paramedics for saving her life. “They never gave up on me. They just wouldn’t give up.”

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The Importance Of CPR

Anybody can learn basic CPR skills. Together with the Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services, Brooks Memorial Hospital offers opportunities throughout the county to learn CPR skills that can help save a life. For information on scheduling a CPR class in your organization, contact myhealth@brookshospital.org.

Brooks Memorial Hospital (Brooks) is a 65-bed general medical and surgical acute-care community hospital located in Dunkirk. Brooks specializes in: inpatient and outpatient surgical services including comprehensive orthopedics with physical therapy and rehabilitation; medical/diagnostic imaging; endoscopic GI lab; maternity; intensive care; pain management clinic; quick-turnaround laboratory services and emergency care — including BrooksCare Express fast-track process. For information visit brookshospital.org or call 366-1111.

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According to the American Heart Association, heart attack signs in women include:

1. Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.

2. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

4. Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

5. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.

It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of stroke and heart attack. Call for emergency help (9-1-1 in most areas) right away if you or someone you know is having them. The faster treatment is given, the quicker blood flow will be restored to the area and the greater the chance to prevent long-term damage, or even death.

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