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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Patricia N. Donahue, RNC, MSN

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Gordon: When and why did you and your family join Our Lady of Lourdes Parish?

Patti: We joined the local parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, when we moved to Melbourne in 1980, not long after we were married.

Gordon: What are some of your most memorable experiences as a longtime parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes?

Patti: One of the best experiences was many years ago when our parish participated in the Renew Program.  We were divided into small study groups that met weekly in member’s homes.  We developed nice friendships as we explored the readings and shared our thoughts and insights.  Our deacon also conducts a bible study that is very interesting. 

In the past, I served as a Lay Eucharistic minister and this was very meaningful to me.  I have also been pleased to have my children participate in CCD and receive their first Communion and Confirmation at OLL.  The church also performs a reenactment of the Last Supper during Holy Week and I look forward to attending.  One of the things I like best about Our Lady of Lourdes, however, are the thought provoking homilies each and every week. 

Gordon: You are currently a consultant for Huron Healthcare.  What are your primary responsibilities?

Patti: As a healthcare consultant, my main role is to help hospitals become stronger financially by becoming more efficient, improving processes and patient satisfaction.

Gordon: Prior to your current position, you served as a Nursing Director at Holmes Regional Medical Center.  Over your 30 years of experience in healthcare and nursing administration.  how has your faith helped you with your responsibilities?  

Patti: I was brought up in a Catholic family and attended Sacred Heart School for 8 years.  I have always had a strong faith and I think it has helped me become the person that I am.  When I see someone going through a difficult time, I try to be understanding and listen to them and support them.  When appropriate, I have prayed with others.  I have often said silent prayers for both patients and their families as well as for the staff caring for them.  I believe the chaplains play a very important role in the healthcare system and have worked closely with them over my career.

Gordon: How has technology affected the nursing profession since you first became a nurse?  

Patti: I have seen a lot of change since becoming a nurse.  Regarding IT, we used to chart on paper and gradually moved through various stages of the electronic medical record.  Now we can have lab and other tests and procedure results at our fingertips.  Office records can be linked to the hospital medical record for greater continuity.  Some patients can update their health history from home.  National/international data storage has made the link from treatments to outcomes so much more reliable….  There are so many new technologies for diagnosing and treating of disease that have been developed. Robotics for surgeries and telemedicine are just a few.  Technology improvements will continue to evolve and continual change within the healthcare professions is now a norm.

Gordon: You and family have experienced some unimaginable challenges with your husband Brian's illnesses and near death experiences.  Could you provide us with an overview of his health challenges?

Patti: Brian began feeling a bit out of sorts in February 2005.  We tried to get him an appointment in mid to late March but his primary care physician was no longer taking “new patients”.  I tried to explain to the office staff that he had not been in to see the physician in a few years because he was doing well and was without any health complaints but that this was his doctor.  The doctor’s name was even listed on his insurance card.  They simply stated they dropped any patients who had not come in within the last 1 ½  to 2 years so he would be considered a new patient.  I complained that we had received no notification that Brian had been dropped from the doctor’s list of patients.  Nothing mattered.  They were not seeing him as he is a new patient in their eyes.

Brian did not feel any better but had not really gotten any worse in the meantime as we sought a new primary care physician.  Then Brian collapsed at a luncheon in April 2005. He was rushed to the hospital and after a battery of tests, he was eventually diagnosed with endocarditis (an infection in his heart).  We were told he needed surgery but it was too risky to perform right away as the mass of infection was so large that there was too great of a chance of causing it to spread to other organs as it was being removed.  Brian was given antibiotics for several days to decrease the size of the mass until he could undergo open heart surgery for a mitral valve replacement as the heart valve had been totally destroyed by the infection.  It was very scary to wait for the surgery as tiny pieces of the infectious mass were breaking off as the heart valve opened and closed and were then entering the blood stream with the potential of becoming lodged in various other areas of his body especially his brain.  The mass of infection gradually got smaller and open heart surgery was performed and was successful. Brian was discharged home on another month of IV antibiotics and we thought he would be fine. He even went back to work for a portion of the summer

He had a few episodes of dysrhythmias that sent him back into the hospital but overall, we were pleased with his progress.  That is, until his feet started swelling one weekend in September 2005….  We called his doctor and he was given medication to help decrease the swelling. 

Within a couple of days, he was rushed to the hospital as he suddenly was having great difficulty breathing and started coughing up large amounts of blood. This was about the time we were preparing to be hit by a severe storm and I had been boarding up windows in preparation.  Brian was found to have full force recurrence of the infection on his mitral valve when they did a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) .  The mechanical valve was basically “breaking off” due to the recurrence of the infection. Before the case, the surgeons told me his heart looked “like Jell-O” and they didn’t think he would make it through the procedure. Even though Brian was unconscious and ventilated, I told him goodbye and that I loved him and that I would pray for him throughout the case and that all of our friends and family would be praying, too.  As they were about to roll him back to the OR, I asked his anesthesiologist to take good care of him.  The anesthesiologist then told me that he had been present during the TEE and with how bad Brian’s infection was, he felt there was little chance of survival.  I had even asked about a heart transplant as I did not think Brian’s heart could go through this again.

My family and friends spent several long hours just sitting together and praying while the surgeons worked on Brian. The anesthesiologist was the first doctor I saw, and he ran out to tell me that he couldn’t believe his eyes, that when they started the case, Brian’s heart still seemed like  “Jell-O” but that it seemed to visibly improve throughout the case to where it was easier to repair with each stitch and seemed more like “normal” heart tissue by the end.  He felt the surgery was a miracle as the surgeons were starting the case feeling like they would not be able to close Brian’s heart due to the poor condition of the heart tissue.  Needless to say, we were excited to receive good news.  This new tissue heart valve was apparently working well.  Once again, after a week of post-surgical hospitalization, Brian was discharged home on antibiotics. 

Late one night in October 2005, exactly 4 weeks to the day of his having the valve replaced, Brian again had difficulty breathing and was coughing up blood. I rushed him to the hospital and he was taken immediately into the ED and intubated.  The cardiologist who was on call did testing and did not think it was a problem with Brian’s heart.  I thought it looked exactly like the symptoms of a month before and told the house supervisor.  She called Brian’s own cardiac surgeon and handed the phone to me so I could talk to him.  I explained the symptoms and told him I thought Brian’s new valve must be “breaking off’ again.  He tried to reassure me as he had gotten report from the on call doctor caring for Brian and that he would see us very early the next morning. 

Upon arrival his early arrival to the ICU, Brian’s cardiologist performed another TEE. He prepared for emergent surgery because he could see that, in fact, I had been correct and the valve was barely attached. The infection again recurred yet a third time.  The infectious disease doctor had been doing ongoing research on the organism following the second surgery. He found that endocarditis from this organism was very rare and only recorded in a few people worldwide. When it was the cause of endocarditis, it had often recurred a second time in the patients who had been infected.  There was no known case of a third recurrence documented in any literature. 

During this surgery, while we continued to pray, the cardiothoracic surgeon not only replaced the mitral valve but as they were closing the heart from that procedure, they realized the aortic valve was also not functioning correctly and had to reopen his heart to replace it as well.  Then, they could not get the heart to restart or to remove him from the heart-lung bypass machine.  They had to place him on a biventricular assist device (BiVAD) and he remained unconscious and intubated following this day long surgery.  Over the next 5 days, they had to re-operate 5-7 times to remove clots of blood that were accumulating in his chest.  During one of those procedures, the BiVAD became dislodged and the surgeon had to reinsert it.

At that time, the doctors were not sure if he was brain dead or not.  While Brian remained on life support in the ICU, I was told to watch for any signs of brain function.  At one point, I thought I saw his eyes roll behind his eyelids while I was talking to him.  Because of that, he was transferred by helicopter from our local hospital to Shands UF to be listed for heart transplant. I went to Gainesville to stay with him while he was hospitalized out of town.  That meant my parents and my mother in-law and sister-in-law from Jacksonville had to rotate coming down to Melbourne to stay with and care for our two younger children.

While Brian was at Shands being evaluated for transplant, they ran many tests.  Among those tests was an elevated marker for prostate cancer, which excluded him from being listed for transplant.  I would not/could not believe he had cancer.  It took having a cardiologist friend of mine from Melbourne who had transferred to Shands talking to me to convince me the concern for cancer was valid.  He himself reviewed the very high PSA results and saw the prostate mass on Brian’s CT scan.

Brian never really responded to the massive doses of antibiotics they were giving him.  And then, around Thanksgiving, the BiVAD itself became infected.  Brian was again taken to surgery to remove the machine. While the doctor was reporting to me post-surgery, he stopped and said, “Just hurry back in there and see Brian as he is going to die any minute.”  I went back to see Brian, unconscious and unresponsive in the ICU, and told him that I would try to be both a good mom and dad to the kids and that he could let go as he had fought a good fight and it was ok to stop trying any more.  I had been praying all day for God to save Brian.  At this moment, I changed my prayer and started to pray that God do what he thought was best for Brian and our family.  Shortly after that change in prayer, Brian’s vital signs began to show incremental improvements.  The doctor changed from saying he would die any minute to he might make it another hour.  Gradually, the doctor, who remained with Brian, talked about him maybe making it until morning, then maybe until noon and then maybe until night. Brian was indeed showing signs of improvement.

All of the family and friends continued to pray.  Brian, however, remained ventilated and unconscious.  The doctors again were fairly sure he did not have any brain function due to oxygen deprivation and he had total organ failure following the surgery.  They placed him on CRRT, which is basically continuous bedside dialysis.  I was told Brian was paralyzed and that although his vital signs had improved, they were not sure of Brian’s prognosis.  We prayed for full recovery despite the odds.

I continued praying daily at his side, always carrying my rosary beads with me as I had since childhood.  One day, I noted a tiny movement of his little finger.  I called the nurse over and we were all amazed.  A few days after that I asked Brian to move his toes.  An almost imperceptible movement occurred.  I told the staff.  A neurology chief of staff and a resident came to see Brian and me.  I told them about the toe movement, they said it was impossible.  I asked Brian to again move his toe and he did.  The physicians were totally amazed. This meant that Brian was no only not paralyzed, he was also not brain dead either. 

I worked all Brian’s muscles any day that the physical therapy staff was not there to work with him.  Over time, he became more awake, was able to be removed from the ventilator and gradually learned to move his limbs and to talk.  Finally, he had improved enough to return to our local hospital in Melbourne.  Then they tried to go from continual dialysis to daily then to every other day.  They were not successful and he needed daily dialysis.  That Christmas Eve, sitting on the cot next to him at midnight, I started to talk to God, a common method of my prayer.  I said, “God, you have worked miracles and Brian is not brain dead, he talks, he is not paralyzed, his heart is stronger.  But, about this dialysis…..  Brian will not like having to have dialysis, please give him back his kidneys, too.”  I prayed this over and over for at least an hour.  Finally, I laid down as I was so tired.  Just then, Brian said, “urinal”.  I rushed into the hall and called for someone to bring a urinal.  The staff asked why as they knew Brian had no kidney function.  I told them he asked for it and so we rushed one to him.  I helped him but to no avail as he was so weak, he fell back to sleep.  The next morning he tried to go again, and this time he urinated a few drops.  A couple of hours later, he voided about 30 mls.  He has never had a dialysis treatment since that prayer.  I honestly think God has a great sense of humor.  I can see Him up there saying, “I have to give Brian back his kidneys as Patti will not let me be until I do!!” 

Brian was released from the hospital in early January to a rehab center where he stayed until Valentine’s Day.  There, they taught him to walk again with a special walker, they helped him relearn to talk, write, and gain more cognitive ability.  They worked with him with speech, physical and occupational therapy.  He also had therapy for many months after discharge as an outpatient.  A niece was getting married in the summer.  Brian’s goal was to attend and dance at her wedding in the Keys and we did!

We subsequently went to to urologist to deal with the prostate cancer. The mass was gone and his PSA was normal.  The cancer had disappeared. One more prayer answered. Rechecking over the years has also shown no recurrence. 

Gordon: How did his illnesses affect your children and their faith?

Patti: I think the whole experience was very hard on them all.  My younger two were pulled out of school several times, usually by one of my nursing colleagues, whom they did not know, because they had to hurry to the hospital as “their dad was dying”.  Again. This must have been been horrible for them.  When my son expressed his worry to a teacher, he was told to “suck it up and be a man”.  I think that was cruel and totally out of line.  What he really needed was someone who could listen to what he and his sibling were going through as they were left in Melbourne.  Their dad had been airlifted to a hospital hours away, and their mom rushed to stay with their dad and was gone for two months as well.  They were not certain their dad would survive.  Although they love their grandparents and aunt, it was hard to be separated from their parents at such a stressful time. I cannot imagine how they keep any focus on their school work.  One good thing was seeing how much their family and friends prayed and then watching how those prayers kept bringing their dad back from near death on so many occasions. I think they learned to trust in God and learned that prayer, just talking to God, is a way to deal with your biggest fears and hopes. 

My oldest daughter had just started her first year at UF in August.  For her, it was hard to urgently rush home to Melbourne for his emergency second and third open heart surgeries.  Those drives must have seemed so long and scary.  Once he was moved to Shands at the U of Florida in Gainesville, she was able to come visit but I’m sure studying was often interrupted with thoughts of her dad.  Her faith, like the other two, was solidified as she was witness to the many healing miracles that her dad experienced.

Gordon: You mentioned that when you were told that he was moments away from dying that you were by his bedside and prayed to God in a totally different way. Do you remember what you asked God?

Patti: I changed my prayers from “God please save him” to  “God, just do what You think is best”.  At that very moment his vitals started to get very slightly better and the doctor started saying he might live another hour,  then another few hours, then said he might live until that evening.  After that they were just so amazed as slight improvements continued.   

At Brian’s BiVAD removal surgery, he had total organ failure and was put on 24 hour dialysis.  No organs did any work, he remained unconscious and on the ventilator since October. They told me he was brain dead, paralyzed and needing continual dialysis.  I kept praying and sometime after Thanksgiving I noted his pinkie move a fraction of an inch and then his toes days later.  They could not believe I saw him move as he was paralyzed but then I got Brian to move ever so slightly on command when they were watching.  He was no longer paralyzed. Prayers answered.  He was no longer brain dead now either. More prayers answered.

He was removed from the ventilator as he regained consciousness and was able to breathe on his own.  About a month later, he was returned to Melbourne beginning to try a few words but dialysis was still required and it had to be daily.  Right before Christmas is when I sat next to his bed and prayed to God to not make him have to have dialysis and after that hour long prayer, he mouthed  “urinal” and although he could not void then he gradually did the next day.  He has never had dialysis since that prayer when he still was in total renal failure.

Gordon: What did his physicians tell you after he began to recover?

Patti: For the two in Melbourne, I wonder if it was more difficult to believe that their dad was recovering at first.  They started to get messages of improvement, but they had heard those same things before, following the first two surgeries.  When I returned home and Brian was finally transferred back to Melbourne, I think they were able to see for themselves that their dad had improved and was starting the very long road to recovery. 

I discovered one very important thing about a year later when talking to my son.  My friends and I were always saying, “If only Brian had taken antibiotics before his teeth cleaning, none of this would ever have happened.”  Little did I know that my son assumed his dad had not followed medical advice and caused all this pain and suffering upon himself and our family.  My son actually had been inwardly very angry toward his dad for the toll it had taken on the whole family.  However, that is not the case.  Brian was not at risk so he never was prescribed antibiotics before dental work.  The infection in his heart stemming from his teeth cleaning was such a shock to everyone.  Once my son realized that, he was able to truly love his dad fully again and not hold him responsible.  Our son was able to heal inside, too, as he realized how he had misinterpreted the conversations he had overheard.

Our oldest daughter was relieved with every improvement Brain made; she wasn’t ready to lose by dad yet. While he was at his sickest, it was helpful though to have him close to her at Shands. She could literally walk by after class to visit him and spend time with him. And then as he got better, she could be there quickly to witness improvements. She remembers one day in particular when her dad was getting well enough that they were thinking of transferring him back to Melbourne. I had gone back home for a couple days to help care for my other children and to get things ready at home for Brian’s return. It was during study days before finals, so she was able to stay at his bedside all day in my place. At this point, Brian would wake up to command but hadn’t really started speaking/talking yet. One of Brian’s nurses asked her about school and Megan told her about her classes and then started talking about her roommate.  Suddenly, she heard her dad speak!  He asked how her friend was doing and said he remembered my daughter telling him her friend hadn’t been sure about her choices in schools early in the semester. Brian then went on to talk about how he knew where he was and who he was. He even told her how many years we had been married! She is very excited to have been there for this special event!

My family and I are so truly blessed.

Gordon: Since he has been home, have you had any professional caregiver help other than yourself?

Patti: When he first came home, the rehab center picked him up and took him to rehab therapy (PT, OT & ST) for months and then discharged him from outpatient rehab.  He then saw a psychologist for coping skills and brain therapy and also went to outpatient brain rehab therapy for a long time after that.

Gordon: You have experienced powerful examples of the power of prayer. What lessons about prayer have you shared with your friends and other members of your profession?

Patti: I know that God really listens whether you talk to him with formal prayer or if you simply talk to him as a friend.  Never give up hope.  Even when situations look scary and bleak, prayer can change everything.  Prayer can be answered in a number of ways.  You must be willing to be quiet and listen for the answer.  Sometimes that answer is no.  When I find that to be true, if I am patient, I find that God has a much better plan for me and my family than anything I could ever imagined at the time.

Gordon: We ask all of our readers to pray for a continued improvement in Brian's health.


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