A heart attack had left Michele De Leeuw unconscious and reliant on hospital equipment to keep her breathing. With almost no chance of her recovering, husband Karl was left facing a terrible decision. He finally gave doctors permission to turn off Michele’s life support – but then something barely believable happened.
Michele and Karl De Leeuw have been wed for more than 26 years. They reside in Sterling Heights, Michigan and have two grown-up children. Their daughter goes by the name of Myles and is 24 and their son, Jake, is three years her junior.
The married couple were spending a day at home in August 2018 when out of the blue, tragedy struck. One moment, Michele and Karl were simply enjoying spending time together. The next, Michele, 57, began to show signs of cardiac problems.
A heart attack is classified as a medical emergency and occurs when the blood flow the heart receives is restricted, often as a result of a clot. Symptoms can include chest pain, breathlessness and dizziness. It’s also common for sufferers to experience a heightened sense of foreboding.
Although it is possible to recover from a heart attack, sufferers may experience long-term damage to the heart muscle. According to the U.K.’s NHS website, problems such as the heart muscle rupturing or a cardiac arrest, can also arise very quickly after the attack. What’s more, these serious effects can very easily prove fatal.
On that fateful day in August, Michele stopped breathing shortly after the heart attack began. Naturally, the emergency services were quickly summoned. Nonetheless, an agonizing 15-minute wait lay in store for the pair before paramedics arrived on the scene.
Now in everyday life, a quarter of an hour doesn’t seem like that much time. However, the moments that follow immediately after a person stops breathing are crucial. This is because if a person stops respiring, then their body is no longer receiving oxygen.
The brain is particularly sensitive to being deprived of oxygen. A study cited on the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses website shows that once oxygen levels in the blood are reduced, brain cells begin to die off within five minutes. Furthermore, once ten minutes has elapsed, the damage caused is extremely likely to be irreversible.
When the paramedics arrived at Michele and Karl’s home they did everything they could to give Michele the best chance possible. Despite the 15-minute wait, the Sterling Heights crew did their very best to resuscitate the 57-year-old.
She was then taken to St John Macomb-Oakland Hospital in Madison Heights. The prognosis, however, was not an optimistic one. Although the paramedics had done everything in their power to help, doctors would have known the likelihood of Michele recovering was extremely low.
Once they had reached the emergency room it was time for Karl to make some very important phone calls. He had to let both his children know what had happened. It was down to him to pass on the grim news that their mother was in hospital and her life was hanging in the balance.
Speaking to TV network NBC News in December 2018, Myles described what it was like to receive the fateful call. She said, “When my father called me after she was rushed to the hospital … he felt that she was dead. It was the most earth-shattering phone call of my young life.”
All the De Leeuw family could do was await any changes in Michele’s condition. Due to the severity of the 57-year-old’s case her family harbored no great expectation that she would recover. All that was left to them was to sit and wait and hope.
Children are used to relying on their parents for support. This means it can be especially tough for a child to sit by and watch a parent suffer. “It was horrible to see my mother on more IVs and tubes than you can ever imagine,” Myles told NBC News.
Also speaking to NBC News, Karl agreed with his daughter. The 58-year-old admitted to reporters, “I’ve never seen that many IVs.” And in the days that followed the attack there was little new information that the doctors could give the family.
Just under a week after Michele was taken ill, the De Leeuw family were given some heartbreaking information about her condition. Doctors had been carrying out tests on their patient, and the results did not make for encouraging reading. Her brain was working at only 5 percent function and her heart at 25 percent.
It was at this point that doctors began to ask Karl the question that no spouse wants to contemplate. Once it had been confirmed just how serious Michele’s condition was, he had to start thinking the unthinkable. In short, he had to consider whether he wanted his wife’s life support turned off.
This decision is not an easy one and doctors do not treat it lightly. Usually, they offer advice and it is family members who actually make the decision. Medics will counsel switching off life support only if and when it is clear that the patient is highly unlikely to make a recovery.
According to the website Webmd.com, if a patient is on life support it means that their body is unable to sustain itself unaided. Once you remove the medical equipment aiding them to breathe, that person will most likely die quickly. This process is usually measured in terms of hours, but it can take days in some cases.
Being responsible for making a decision like this is far from easy. Indeed, Karl described the dilemma to NBC News as the “hardest decision of my life.” Eventually, he summoned the courage to make the hard choice. “I took her off the ventilator. I unplugged her,” he said.
Once the decision has been made to turn off the life support of a relative, the family is forced to start to come to terms with the demise of a loved one. Indeed, Myles told NBC News, “When we pulled the plug, it was just so sad to start living with the reality that my mom is dead.”
Against all odds, however, Michele had a surprise in store for her family and doctors alike. When her life support was turned off, rather than stop breathing as was expected, Michele did something remarkable. The strange turn of events stunned all those that were invested in her care.
Minutes after the mom-of-two’s ventilator was switched off, she did something that shocked everyone. “She started breathing on her own,” Karl revealed to NBC News. However, despite what many would describe as a miracle, Michele’s overall condition remained extremely serious.
Although Michele was now breathing on her own, she had still not regained consciousness. As a result, doctors were reluctant to revise their low expectations of a further recovery. Despite the doctors’ pessimistic predictions, however, as it turned out Michele’s story was not over yet.
Once she had begun to breathe on her own, it was decided that Michele would be moved to somewhere a bit more comfortable. The unconscious patient was therefore relocated to the hospice ward. At this stage, medical experts were nonetheless expecting her to pass away relatively quickly.
Instead, Karl described to NBC News what occurred next. He said, “Two days later, the doctor called me on the phone and said, ’We’ve had an unexpected event happen.’” Incredibly, Michele had opened her eyes for the very first time since she had been admitted to hospital.
From this moment onwards, Michele’s recovery went from strength to strength. Indeed, just two short days after the 57-year-old opened her eyes, she was speaking again. The pace and extent of Michele’s recuperation was defying medical expectation.
Describing his wife’s recovery, Karl told NBC News, “She told the nurse she’s hungry. I said, ‘Well, feed her.’ Two days later she was sitting up in bed feeding herself.” The progress that Michele was now making was remarkable and totally unexpected.
Although Michele’s recovery to this point might have seemed like a miracle, to make a full recovery she still had a long road ahead of her. At this point the 57-year-old could breathe, talk and eat unaided, but she remained confused and was unable to talk coherently or comprehend where she was and what had happened to her.
The next step was to try various treatment options to assist Michele on her route back to full health. Even though doctors couldn’t be sure how fast the heart attack victim would recover and to what extent, they were able to give her the best chance they could.
Michele has since undergone open heart surgery as well as both physical and speech therapy in a bid to return her to her former self. Miraculously, the program seems to have worked. As a result of her treatments Michele has now almost completely recuperated.
Not only did Michele’s condition improve drastically in the days following her surgery, but soon enough she was able to leave hospital altogether. And there was a sweet twist of fate in the happy day’s timing. Michele was allowed to return home on her and Karl’s 26th wedding anniversary.
Unsurprisingly, this turn of events led Karl to think more deeply about the true meaning of his wedding promises. Speaking to NBC News, he related how the phrasing of their vows had seemed so much more poignant in the four months following his wife’s heart attack.
For richer, for poorer? Well, Karl said that their marriage had certainly survived money ups and downs in the past. And more recently, their bond had remained strong in sickness and in health. He continued, “For me though, I don’t think there are a lot of couples who can pass the last one, ‘’til death do us part.’”
In December 2018, Michele was honored with the Sterling Heights Fire Department’s “Survival Coin.” This happy occasion also gave Michele an opportunity to meet the paramedics who had treated her at the scene when she had her heart attack. She was doubtless delighted to be able to thank them face-to-face.
Michele’s tale is one of a few rare cases of patients making a full recovery in defiance of medical expectations. Another similar story is that of Scott Marr, a 61-year-old father from Omaha, Nebraska. He appeared to have suffered a stroke on December 12, 2018 and medics advised his family to shut down his life support the following day.
As his daughter Preston recounted to news reporters for KMTV, “The neurosurgeon said if there was anything he could do, he would do it, but that we needed to prepare ourselves for the reality of the situation. They told us he was on his way to brain death, so we said our goodbyes before extubating him.”
The next day, though, the hospital called to ask the family if they could visit Scott. Preston told KMTV, “When we got up there, I went in just to talk to him, like I have been this whole time, and said, ’Hi Dad.’ He smiled at me, and I literally thought I was dreaming. It was the craziest moment ever.”
Scott was ultimately diagnosed with posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome, a condition whose symptoms include seizures. He has since been released from hospital and is receiving physical therapy. By all accounts he is now well on the way to making a full recovery.
Stories like Michele’s and Scott’s and others like them are little short of astounding. When a family feels forced to make the heartbreaking decision of turning off someone’s life support, they expect only one outcome. But as these stories show, sometimes miracles do happen.