‘I one hundred percent believe what I saw’
Donna Kevis remembers being wheeled from the first recovery room to a second, one final postoperative stop until she could be taken to her hospital room to recuperate.
For Kevis, the months leading up to the surgery had been grueling, to say the least.
A former owner for almost two decades of the Gay Street Inn in Washington, who has since lived for more than 20 years in Sperryville, Kevis was pushing a “free-samples” food cart she operated at Costco in Charlottesville when the unimaginable happened.
“I came out with my little cart loaded with stuff and stepped on some fruit or something and went face forward,” she recalls. “I dislocated my shoulder in two different spots, broke my nose, chipped a tooth, cracked my chin, landed on my knees, and then rolled over and hit my head on a bollard. And my shoulder went underneath my collarbone so they couldn’t even put a collar on me.”
That was in January 2016 and little did Kevis know her battle was only beginning.
“The ambulance took me to casualty at UVA but they couldn’t get many x-rays because of my injuries. So they loaded me up on drugs, knocked me out and straightened my shoulder, but they couldn’t straighten it out enough because of the clavicle,” she said.
So Kevis made an appointment with an orthopaedic surgeon in Warrenton, who determined her shoulder would have to be replaced. She underwent surgery at Fauquier Hospital In May 2016.
“That was the first time,” Kevis noted. “It did not go well. It was the first time I had heart issues. But nobody thought anything of it.”
What concerned Kevis and her doctors more was that her new shoulder was beginning to fail.
“It wasn’t working,” she explained. “The cement started weeping out of my arm — my arm was like sandpaper, all the cement was coming out. Not only wasn’t it holding the new shoulder, all the wiggling made more space and we were afraid it would break. And there was concern about infection because it was always so hot.
“And meanwhile my heart was going funky.”
Kevis was told that a total reverse shoulder replacement was needed, “a very difficult operation,” she said. “It’s not a normal thing.”
She was introduced to a highly recommended surgeon with Anderson Orthopaedic Clinic at INOVA Mt. Vernon Hospital (the doctor during his career has worked with both the U.S. women’s national soccer team and Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, she said).
At various clinics and hospitals Kevis underwent a series of pre-op tests and examinations, including CAT scans. Rather than a medium-size women’s shoulder replacement, as she was given before, the doctor readied a large child’s size shoulder for the surgery that was scheduled for May 2017, approximately one year after the first surgery.
“The surgery took four hours,” Kevis said. “He had to clean out all the remaining cement, get rid of the bad joint, make the space that had gotten bigger smaller to keep the shoulder from rolling out, and then clean and sterilize everything. That went OK. It was May 3 and I was supposed to go home May 4. But I didn’t because I croaked.”
As far as Kevis knows, all of her vital signs were normal during the several hours of surgery and time she spent in the first recovery room.
“And then they sent me into the second recovery room and that’s when the oxymoron happens. Thank God my brother was there. That’s when my heart started beating at 249 beats [per minute] and my blood pressure went down to 42 over 36.
“That’s dead,” said Kevis. “My brother said, ‘I was talking to you and then you went away. Your eyes went nowhere. I kind of shook you. And then the hospital staff rushed in and pushed me away.’”
A defibrillator was of no use because of Kevis’ fresh surgical wounds, so the emergency responders turned to epinephrine, a primary drug administered during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) that causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle strength.
“My brother told me later, ‘A woman in a lab coat arrived with needles and jammed one into stomach, but you didn’t come back. And then she jammed a second one into you, but again you didn’t come back.’”
Exactly how long it took to restore Kevis’ heartbeat isn’t known, but it was long enough for a Catholic priest at the hospital to be summoned.
“My brother is very Catholic,” Kevis noted. “He said he wasn’t worried at first until he turned around and saw the priest in the corner praying. Then he was worried.”
As were doctors and nurses when the second injection of epinephrine failed to jumpstart the heart. As for Kevis, she’d gone somewhere else.
“This is the fun part, and it’s the truth,” she said. “Everybody says you’re just saying this because you’ve read about it. And I’ve had long talks with myself, and I was brought up Catholic, and I sort of thought about that. I’ve had a lot of down time to think about it . . .
“It isn’t suggestion,” she insisted. “I one hundred percent believe what I saw.”
Which “at first was a twinkling of lights. I was in this little pillow — a nest or a cloud — that was wonderful, very calming, very welcoming and peaceful . . .
“I went from being there [in the hospital] to this beautiful little place. And then further along there was this other brighter light” that Kevis described as extremely white.
“But I was here in this nest, and further away was the other light, and I didn’t feel any compunction whatsoever to go there. I was pretty happy where I was with this sparkling light and peace. There was no fear, no anxiety, no ‘Oh My God, what is this?’
“This is OK,” Kevis recalled feeling at the time.
“And then they threw me back,” she said. “I was the guest. It just wasn’t my time.”
Kevis woke up four days later, and for the first time her brother explained what transpired in the second recovery room. “They got a third needle in and then you came back,” he told her.
She would remain at Mt. Vernon hospital for the remainder of the month, starting out in the ICU unit. In these seven-plus months since then she’s continued to visit various hospitals for follow-up treatments.
“I’ve had a hell of a time,” she doesn’t mind saying, including a recent procedure at UVA where “80 percent of the left atrium of my heart was burned because my heart wouldn’t stop going into Afib. And it’s still going into Afib. I felt it the other day.
“I go back to the hospital in three months,” she said.
That said, given her out-of-body experience when her heart had stopped, Kevis said she’s not afraid of what the future holds in store.
“I feel very relaxed about things,” she said. “All the stuff we worry about, what’s the point? Yes, there are important things in life that we have to take care of — you have your obligations, but what is there to fret and sweat and agonize over? Enjoy life when you’ve got it. It’s precious.
“But to die it’s not as frightening for me. Now that I look back it was OK. It wasn’t my time. And I’m very comfortable with what happens in the future, very reassured.”
Although, she adds: “I just don’t want to be burned and I don’t want to drown.”