By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Jenna Tischer was enjoying a wonderful Mother’s Day afternoon, savoring what was supposed to be her last week of maternity leave following the birth of her son.
The family strolled around their Warrensburg, Missouri, neighborhood, with 6-week-old Bryson and their 2-year-old daughter Kinley.
But Tischer doesn’t recall any of that day or the day before due to damage from a provoked stroke caused by a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, known as SCAD.
About 2 a.m. on May 12 last year, Tischer woke feeling nauseated and rushed to the bathroom. She suddenly felt very hot.
Not wanting to disturb the baby sleeping in his bassinette, Tischer and her husband, Jason, went to the living room.
Jason was concerned and typed 9-1-1 into his mobile phone. But he didn’t hit the call button.
After a few minutes, Tischer laid her head in Jason’s lap and began snoring softly before suddenly bolting up. Her arms shot into the air like a referee signaling a field goal. She was having a seizure.
Jason hit the call button and after conferring with the emergency dispatcher, he picked up his wife and laid her on her side on the floor. When the seizure stopped, Tischer’s body went limp. Jason felt no pulse or breath and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
The first of two ambulances arrived within 10 minutes. The emergency crews worked unsuccessfully for another 20 minutes, the typical stopping point. But with Jason holding a crying infant behind them, they continued for an additional 17 minutes.
They were able to get Tischer’s heart beating again and took her to the nearest hospital. There she was prepared for transport to a cardiac care center an hour away in Kansas City, Missouri.
Doctors later told the couple that they didn’t expect Tischer to survive the trip.
Tischer, had no risk factors for heart disease and testing indicated she had a SCAD, which triggered both the seizure and a massive stroke leading up to her cardiac arrest. Doctors placed two stents to reopen the artery and put her into an induced coma to allow her body to heal.
Researchers aren’t sure what causes SCAD, but patients are often women who are otherwise healthy, with few or no risk factors for heart disease. Some studies have pointed to a hormonal link, showing a greater incidence among post-partum women and women who are experiencing or close to a menstrual cycle.
For Tischer’s family, the next few days were agony. They waited to see if she would wake up and whether her brain was damaged from the extended time without oxygenated blood.
When she woke, there were several anxious days of testing as doctors checked to see if Tischer, initially supported by a ventilator, could slowly regain the ability to breathe on her own. It was several days before they realized she had lost her vision, something that she continues to undergo therapy to improve.
Tischer spent more than a week-and-a-half in the cardiac intensive care unit and a week-and-a-half in the cardiac center before moving to an in-patient rehab center nearby, where she learned to move her right side and handle daily functions. It was weeks before the pinpoint of light Tischer could see transitioned into a tenuous baseball-size field of vision that came and went as her brain healed.
She headed home two weeks later and began a rigorous schedule of physical, occupational and speech therapy, first at home, and then at an outpatient center.
Tischer’s heart didn’t sustain any damage from her SCAD, but the damage from the stroke was extensive. In addition to her vision, which continues to recover, Tischer now has arm spasms and her muscles will suddenly clench. Nerve damage in her legs makes them hypersensitive, requiring pain medication.
Tischer continues to heal and return to her normal routine. She has started helping with some end-of-year tasks in her first grade classroom since she plans to begin teaching again in the fall.
“Life is finally starting to return to normal,” she said. “We’re focusing on becoming a family again, getting back to work and appreciating every day that we have.”
The Tischers have also become active volunteers for the American Heart Association, participating in their local Heart Walk in October on a team organized by some of her therapists. The couple also shared their story at the 2015 Kansas City Go Red For Women Gala in April, where they also had a chance to meet the team of nurses and doctors who provided Tischer’s initial care.
Helping others recognize the importance of CPR is another key issue for Tischer, who shares how the quick action taken by her husband and all the medical crews worked together to save her life. Jason, like Tischer, is a teacher and undergoes regular CPR training.
Tischer, now 31, also wants to share her story to raise awareness, and support research funding for SCAD.
“I look forward to the day when we’re not just meeting other survivors, but when we can understand what causes it or what puts you at risk,” she said. “It’s become such a big part of our life and I want other young women to understand that it’s not a normal heart attack.”
Tischer said the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, the one-year anniversary of her SCAD have been emotionally difficult for both her and her husband. While she’s looking forward to a similar celebration -– spending the day with her kids and going for a walk around the neighborhood — she knows it will be hard not to think about what happened in 2014.
“I don’t think Jason will sleep that night,” she said.
Tischer said the first responders who saved her consider May 12 her “second” birthday, the day when she was given a second chance to live.
Taking a cue, the family is planning a special “birthday” celebration this month with family, friends and all the first responders, health providers and therapists involved in Tischer’s care.
“It’s hard not to think about how difficult it was, but it feels better to celebrate the positive side of things,” she said. “It’s a whole new outlook on life and a new appreciation for every day.”