By Celia Darrough
Ann Fleury heard a voice telling her to let go, that her family would be cared for.
After hours fighting for her life, she felt no pain, had no emotions. An invisible witness to her own life, she last felt her bed rolling over a threshold that led into the Neuroscience ICU at Boone Hospital. Then she lost her hearing, her memory and control of her own body.
After what was meant to be a routine surgery to repair a hernia and remove her gallbladder, Fleury, a Columbia College alumna who had eight previous surgeries and a history of illnesses and a blood disease, was dying.
But there was someone else fighting for her life.
Before Fleury, 27 years old at the time and a mother of two, was admitted into the ICU that night, Heather Bisges, an RN and a graduate of the Columbia College nursing program, had been assigned as her nurse.
Fleury’s heart rate was in the 120s and her blood pressure ranged from 60 to 80. She was having trouble breathing and was in excruciating pain. “From the time Ann rolled in through the door, I knew it was something more than a side effect from the surgery,” Bisges said. “When I felt her abdomen, it was very distended and hard as a rock. I could tell she was bleeding internally.”
It took her multiple tries to convince the surgeons something was wrong. The main surgeon had left for the night and instructed Bisges to observe Fleury overnight and call with any questions. No, she argued, that wasn’t enough – someone needed to see what she was seeing.
“Absolutely not,” Bisges said when the surgeon said she wasn’t planning on returning to the hospital. “Someone has to get back here. She was crashing, and she was crashing fast.”
Through Bisges’ insistence, doctors returned and performed an exploratory surgery and found that Fleury was, in fact, bleeding internally. They could not find the source of the bleed, but removed several units of blood from her abdomen. But shortly after coming out of the surgery, the bleeding was back and even worse. Ten to 12 doctors, nurses and staff members operated on Fleury as her blood pressure dropped.
“They were pumping blood in, but it was coming out just as quickly,” Fleury said. “One nurse said they were draining blood so fast they didn’t even have time to dispose of it. It sat on the counter in cups, waiting to be emptied.”
Fleury’s cardiologist, pulmonologist, hematologist and primary doctor were called to the ICU. Fleury’s husband, Sam, who is a Columbia College employee, calls them her “starting basketball team” of doctors. Her primary doctor told her parents through tears that it wasn’t looking good.
Clergy was notified.
A second exploratory surgery was scheduled to find the source of the bleed. The incision went from Fleury’s sternum to her pelvis, and after extracting many more units of blood, two areas were found – one above a surgical clip on her right hepatic artery near her gallbladder and the other near her spleen.
In 13 hours, Fleury was transfused with 60 units of blood products. She woke up connected to a ventilator, now back in her body and again aware of her pain and emotions. But she was alive; she knew her children were safe with her sister, Latricia Ferguson – another Columbia College alumna; and Bisges was by her side.
“I came home during the day, and she was all I thought about,” Bisges said. “I wanted to get back to the hospital. When you connect with a patient … I couldn’t think about anything else. I wanted to make sure she was taken care of.”
Fleury is indescribably grateful for Bisges’ dedication to her patients and her profession. A couple of days after the surgeries, Bisges stayed up late one night to help Fleury with her hair.
“I remember her taking the time to braid my hair to keep it from getting knotted and to provide a sense of normalcy after this experience,” Fleury said. “She sat up late and spent about 30 minutes braiding my hair. She’s just that awesome.”
Bisges said nursing is all about the patients, and it’s important to not lose sight of that. During her time at Columbia College when she received her ASN, one of the main things she learned in her classes was that patients come first, she said.
Even when the doctors have a different view, a nurse is a patient’s best advocate. Nurses have to prioritize the patient and stand up for them, even if it means they might get yelled at.
“My instructors taught me to make sure your patient is taken care of, because that’s your No. 1 concern,” she said. “Take care of them the best you can and everything else will fall into place.”
Bisges and Fleury didn’t know each other were Columbia College alumni until Fleury’s husband, Sam, mentioned his work as the senior community and alumni relations coordinator at the college.
Sam Fleury is based at the Lake of the Ozarks campus. He coordinates blood drives each year, which now have a special significance for him and Ann.
“Sam works with the Community Blood Center to host blood drives because of this,” Fleury said. “If they get 60 donors, that’s pretty high. So, not even one blood drive would cover the amount of blood that I received in 13 hours. It’s very humbling that people donate.”
The experience has transfused its way into other areas of the Fleury’s lives as well.
When Fleury was in the hospital, Bisges developed a relationship with Fleury’s parents, Bill and Lou Ann Cross. Lou Ann Cross taught Bisges’ brother in grade school. During a conversation, Bisges mentioned that she was selling her house, which was just down the road from the Cross’ house.
The Fleurys had been looking for a new house for more than two years.
Two months after Ann Fleury was out of the hospital, they toured Bisges’ house and made an offer a few days later. Bisges now lives in her new house, about a half mile from her old one where the Fleurys live.
“It’s great because I know it’s being well taken care of, and the memories of bringing my children home are still there, and they’re making new memories on top of that,” Bisges said. “It’s so nice to be at the mailbox and have Sam honk and wave.”
They see each other around the neighborhood, and the Fleurys make a special call each year on March 15, the day Bisges saved Fleury’s life and the day a bond began. They will celebrate three years in 2014.
“Without her, I would not be here,” Fleury said. “She was that influential. She went to the surgeon, a doctor who didn’t have to listen to her and fought for my life when I couldn’t. All nurses are special, but there’s ones that set the bar. She didn’t have to fight. We were told many times, ‘It’s fine.’ And she fought. For me.”
On Saturday, Dec. 14, 30 nursing students transitioned to nurses at Columbia College’s traditional Nurses’ Pinning Ceremony. Now they’re on their way to making a difference in patients’ lives, just as Bisges did.
“Nurses are your best friend,” Bisges said. “That’s what they want to feel like. They want to be your advocate and take care of you and make sure everything falls how it’s supposed to.”