UC Irvine acute care team’s heroic efforts save new mother

UC Irvine acute care team’s heroic efforts save new mother

December 01, 2012
Acute Care Patient Stephanie Shaffer

Hemorrhaging and without a pulse, new mother Stephanie Shaffer appeared close to death in an intensive care unit at UC Irvine Medical Center.

Shaffer suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a rare congenital vascular disorder that affects blood and lymph vessels. Soon after giving birth to her son, Brian, at a south Orange County hospital in April 2007, she began bleeding internally. When 50 blood transfusions failed to stabilize her, doctors transferred Shaffer to UC Irvine Medical Center, one of the only hospitals in the region that specializes in the treatment of rare and complicated conditions and has its own blood donor center on site.

Two days after arriving at the university medical center in Orange, Shaffer suddenly went into cardiac arrest and Dr. Matthew Dolich fought to save her life. The trauma and acute care surgeon oversaw a massive resuscitation effort, including more blood transfusions and CPR. After 45 minutes, Dolich finally got a pulse and Shaffer was rushed to the operating room for emergency surgery.

In the operating room, Dolich removed her spleen, which had ruptured, causing massive internal bleeding. He worked in concert with a gynecologist, who performed a hysterectomy to stop life-threatening hemorrhaging from Shaffer’s uterus. All told, Shaffer figures she received another 60 or so units of blood.

Dolich performed more operations in succeeding weeks, all the while buoying his patient’s spirits with words of encouragement. "When he made his rounds or visits to my room, he always asked me how my husband, baby and parents were doing," recalls Shaffer.

Nearly two months later, Shaffer was released from the hospital, but she was so weakened by her ordeal that instead of going home to Temecula with her husband, Duane, and infant son, they moved into her parents’ home in Mission Viejo for seven more weeks of intensive physical rehabilitation therapy.

"I had to learn how to walk again," recalls Shaffer, who eventually returned to her job as a hospice social worker in the north San Diego community of Fallbrook. "It’s truly a miracle that I survived and that I didn’t suffer brain damage. Dr. Dolich says I’m his one-in-a-million patient success story."

Dolich—who was operating on another patient with a gunshot wound when Shaffer went into cardiac arrest and had to call in a colleague on his birthday to help—says he’s never seen or heard of another patient able to walk out of a hospital on her own steam after such an ordeal.

"The medical literature would suggest that what we did that night was heroic but futile," he says. "Honestly, I can’t really find the words to express the gratification I feel when I think about her case. As a husband and father, it still takes my breath away every time I get to see Stephanie with her family."

All her life, Shaffer wanted nothing more than to be a mother. Four years later, she finds herself marveling daily about the gift she was given by her surgeon and the skilled UC Irvine team of medical professionals who cared for her: the chance to watch Brian grow.

"There’s really not a day that goes by that I don’t give thanks to Dr. Dolich and UC Irvine for saving my life," she says.

Learn more about Dr. Matthew Dolich »