Close to death, lung clot patient survives after high-tech catheterization at DMC

Surgical team was ‘kind, thoughtful, did everything in their power to help me feel reassured,’ patient says

Operating room.
Operating room.

DETROIT – Her name is Barbara “Barb” Rhodes, but to hundreds of people in the St. Clair County town of Capac, near Port Huron, she is known simply as the cake lady. A highly skilled cake decorator who spent 44 years bringing joy to people at weddings and birthday parties before her recent retirement, Rhodes is also a vigorously energetic wife and mother who often volunteers as a leader of local Girl Scouts and 4-H Clubs.

But all of that began to change in the winter and spring of 2014, as the tireless cake lady, now 70, slowly ran out of energy and found it increasingly difficult to breathe.

By May of 2015, she was frequently exhausted. When she couldn’t even get out of bed anymore, except to drag herself to the dinner table with all her effort, her husband Walter realized something had to be done.

“We were sitting at dinner one night, and I looked at Wally, and I said to him: ‘I think I might be dying,' Rhodes said. “And he got right out of his chair. He said, ‘Let’s get in the truck, honey. We’re going to the hospital -- right now.’”

At the hospital emergency department in Port Huron, the treating cardiologist ran a battery of tests, including a CAT scan imaging procedure designed to look at the heart and lungs. The tests resulted in a disturbing finding: Rhodes was in the middle of a pulmonary embolism, or PE, an extremely dangerous medical condition in which a large blood clot breaks free from an extremity -- usually a leg artery -- and then travels through the circulatory system before settling in the lungs.

Because the lung clot often interrupts the flow of oxygenated blood, the condition is regarded as life-threatening, and more than half of those patients with severe PE die before they can reach a hospital, according to the latest medical research.

As soon as the Port Huron doctors diagnosed Barb’s PE, they called for an ambulance that would rush her to the DMC Heart Hospital -- the only healthcare facility in Michigan with a program already in place to specifically treat pulmonary embolism.

“I was awake on that ride, and I can tell you that we got there in slightly under 45 minutes,” Rhodes said. “I was scared. I was absolutely terrified. I kept wondering: Is this really the end of my life?”

The specialized team of PE clinicians was already preparing for the struggle that lay ahead.

Created about two years ago, the DMC’s specialized PE team is led by its founder, Dr. Mahir D. Elder, a senior cardiovascular specialist who directs the Heart Hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit.

Elder and his fellow blood clot specialists have successfully completed thousands of high-tech procedures for patients with arterial blockages in recent years. A nationally recognized pioneer, Elder was the first Michigan heart doctor to build a pulmonary embolism treatment program for high-risk, critically ill PE patients.

Within an hour of reaching the Heart Hospital on the DMC campus in midtown Detroit, Rhodes was being wheeled toward the catheterization laboratory, where she would undergo a high-tech procedure to remove the lung clot and restore her normal breathing.

“I remember when they rolled me into the lab, how bright it was in there,” she said. “It was like being in a football stadium for a night game. I was pretty scared. But then Dr. Elder took both of my hands and said, ‘Don’t worry, Barb. I’m going to take good care of you.’ And I calmed down right away.”

During the next hour or so, Rhodes underwent a nearly painless procedure in which Elder and his team inserted a catheter into her femoral artery through a tiny incision in her thigh. Then, they maneuvered the tube through her circulatory system until it was positioned adjacent to the life-threatening lung clot. With the cath tube now in place, Elder was able to apply state-of-the-art ultrasound and thrombolysis clot-busting technology, along with a series of specially designed medications to break up and disperse the clot.

According to Elder, who was recently named a Healthcare Hero by Crain’s Detroit Business for using his techniques to prevent more than 1,000 limb-amputations in diabetes patients, the hour-long catheterization “worked perfectly to remove the clot and restore the patient’s oxygen levels.” Within a few hours, the relieved patient’s vital signs were almost back to normal and she was no longer in danger of a fatal heart attack.

“I started feeling better almost as soon as they finished the procedure,” Rhodes said. “My blood pressure went back to normal and I was breathing much easier.”

After being discharged from the DMC Heart Hospital a couple of days later, Rhodes returned to her home in Capac, as well as to her husband of 51 years.

“My energy is back to 100%, and I love to walk out to the barn each morning and feed all the pets," Rhodes said. "I can’t say enough about Dr. Elder and the other doctors and nurses at the DMC. They were kind and thoughtful and did everything in their power to help me feel reassured and at home.”

Dr. Theodore L. Schreiber, president of the DMC Heart Hospital, said Rhodes’ recovery was “a terrific example” of how the creation of a specialized PE program can save lives.

“Dr. Elder and his team have a great deal of experience in treating pulmonary embolism, and they are using the best technology available in the world to treat this condition," Schreiber said. "This is the only program of its kind in Michigan, and I think that’s very good news for all of us who might need their help someday.”

About Detroit Medical Center

Detroit Medical Center includes DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan, DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital, DMC Harper University Hospital, DMC Heart Hospital, DMC Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital, DMC Hutzel Women’s Hospital, DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan and DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital. Detroit Medical Center is a leading regional healthcare system with a mission of excellence in clinical care, research and medical education.