Angie Jorgensen's day began poorly. And it soon got worse.
“I woke up with just, like, thunder and lightning in my chest,” the high-energy mother of four said. “Like my whole chest was gonna crack wide open. It was unbelievable.”
Jorgensen had no idea what was happening, and, for days after she fell into a coma, her doctors at the Nebraska Medical Center weren't sure, either. Tests several days into her stay found the culprit — a rare tumor on one of her adrenal glands that sent her adrenaline levels skyrocketing.
She recovered, in part, because she was hooked to a machine that took over the work of her heart and lungs and let her body rest and reset. The Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation machine, or ECMO, typically serves as a bridge to a heart transplant or the implantation of a device that helps the heart function.
Increasingly, the machine is being used in cases such as Jorgensen's, when doctors believe that a patient can recover from heart and lung crises, med center cardiologists said. Locally, that happens at the med center.
Two months later, Jorgensen is back in her Elkhorn-area home awaiting surgery that should let her return to her routine: working full time at a sales job, teaching fitness classes, caring for four kids and running with her dog.
The morning the storm erupted in Jorgensen's chest, Jon, her husband, rushed her to Lakeside Hospital. He drove into the ditch to get around a long line of cars.
Jorgensen remembers getting into a wheelchair at the hospital entrance and little else — not the heart catheterization that showed no blockages, not the 15 to 20 minutes of CPR, not the helicopter ride to the med center.
She was in cardiogenic shock — her heart was unable to pump as much blood as her body needed. She was hooked to the ECMO machine and to another for kidney dialysis.
Initially, Jorgensen was treated as if she had a heart virus. That and the fact that she was placed on ECMO prompted a nurse practitioner to reach out to Michael Crowe, a 23-year-old Omahan who spent 2˝ weeks last summer on the machine and fully recovered.
Crowe and his parents talked to Jon Jorgensen about what Crowe had been through and how his parents dealt with the stress. Jon Jorgensen said their general message was, “Have faith, and miracles happen. That's what I took from it.”
Angie Jorgensen's heart function gradually improved from 5 percent. A heart biopsy found no evidence of a virus, and after five days on the ECMO machine, her heart was functioning fully and she was taken off the machine.
But her blood pressure kept spiking, leading doctors to the adrenal gland and the tumor they found on it.
The adrenal glands of such patients make too much adrenaline, said Dr. Dmitry Oleynikov, the med center surgeon who will remove the growth. Adrenaline, he said, “causes all the blood vessels to constrict so blood doesn't get around well. It causes the heart to beat very fast ... It's like you're on overdrive inside.”
In Jorgensen case, he said, “it's likely that because she was so healthy and fit, the negative effects of this adrenaline were just not felt by her the same way as somebody who was not so fit.”
She now takes medication to block the extra adrenaline's effects. The removal of the tumor — probably next month — should return those levels to normal.
As she recovered, Jorgensen developed pneumonia and an infection and dealt with the effects of the CPR — a couple of broken ribs.
Doctors also discovered that sometime during her hospital stay, Jorgensen suffered a stroke — possibly while on ECMO, said Dr. Ioana Dumitru, a med center cardiologist who treated her. As Dr. John Um, one of Crowe's doctors, said last year when discussing Crowe's case, ECMO technology has greatly improved, but “it's not natural to have your blood come out of your body, go through a pump, put through an oxygenator and put back.”
The stroke has left Jorgensen with some numbness in her legs, a slight tremor in her hands and minor memory problems. Still, after recovering from the tumor removal, she said, she expects to be back teaching fitness classes by April or May.
Jorgensen said she's thankful she came through relatively unscathed: “It's been one blessing and miracle after another.”
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