When Seconds Count: How a Quick Diagnosis Saved a Young Woman’s Life

  • Hertzberg, Linda, MD, FASA
| Sep 30, 2015

It’s amazing when events that seem to be “miracles” happen, and even more magical to be a part of them, however peripherally.

Recently my husband, David Merzel, MD, a physician anesthesiologist and pediatric intensive care specialist, and his patient, 17-year-old Chiann Wheeler, told the remarkable story of Chiann’s brush with death from sepsis, and how David’s quick diagnosis saved her life.

three_stageThey were the featured speakers at the Larry Carr Memorial Golf Event dinner and auction on September 24, 2015 hosted by the Bakersfield Memorial Hospital (BMH) Foundation to benefit the Lauren Small Children’s Medical Center.

The story began one Sunday morning when then 15-year-old Chiann felt so sick that her father brought her to the emergency department at BMH.  David was the physician on call for the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). A report in the BMH newsletter described what happened next.

It began, her father Chris Wheeler recalls, when they both became ill after attending a birthday party. While he quickly recovered, Chiann’s condition deteriorated with each passing day.

‘When she kept getting worse and had a temperature of 102, we took her to Memorial Hospital on Sunday morning and they immediately wheeled her into the emergency department,’ Chris remembered. ‘A nurse said something’s not right and made a phone call.’

That call brought Dr. David Merzel, a pediatric intensivist and anesthesiologist, into the room where he immediately began going through a mental checklist to determine what was making Chiann so ill.

‘I was told there was a young woman with possible food poisoning, but she also had hypotension, which is life-threatening low blood pressure, she was in shock, and they didn't think she was going to stabilize,’ he said. ‘As a pediatric intensivist with a critical patient, sometimes we need to stabilize first and play detective second. Walking in, I saw her eyes were red and her tongue looked like a strawberry.’

Dr. Merzel noticed one more thing. ‘I asked, ”How long have you had that rash?” And her dad, the nurse, and the ER doctor all said “what rash?” It was covering most of her body, a very distinctive rash that feels like sandpaper from toxins that germs release. I knew then Chiann had classic septic shock due to toxic shock syndrome (TSS) and we were able to start more aggressive treatment immediately.’

Chris Wheeler was awestruck. ‘Dr. Merzel walked in and was able to pinpoint that it was TSS within two minutes of being in the room. To me, Dr. Merzel, he saved my daughter’s life.’

Chiann and David held the rapt attention of over 300 BMH supporters as they spoke about what the hospital and their personal relationship meant to each of them.

David credited Jon Van Boening, the hospital’s CEO, with the vision to bring advanced pediatric care to Bakersfield, establishing a new PICU and an acute-care pediatric floor.

“It is difficult to build pediatric care in a community,” he said. “Pediatric care is not ‘sexy’; it doesn’t lend itself to media sound bites like a Trauma Unit, a Burn Center, a Heart Center, or some hi-tech surgical program.”

“Kids don’t vote, fund-raise, or hold sway with payers be they insurance or government,” he continued. “My colleagues and I cannot emphasize enough the hard work and the administrative leadership (and guts) it took to bring advanced pediatric care, with the PICU as the foundation for growth, to BMH.”

David explained that it was from a sense of community and from personal experience—some of it tragic—that families knew it was time for advanced pediatric care. Before, Bakersfield children who developed serious illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, trauma, or respiratory failure, were at risk of being “shipped out of town” for their care. Sometimes there were critical delays in getting the children the care they needed.

When advanced pediatric care isn’t available in a community, children are separated from families, David explained. Travel to and from the hospital strains families and interferes with work.

“It takes generosity and a sense of community to facilitate care for our children,” he said.

Without a doubt, Chiann Wheeler and her family are grateful for the presence of advanced pediatric care in their hometown. She and her father spoke emotionally about how important it was to them to stay near one another during Chiann’s critical illness. 

Chiann said she feared that she might not have survived a transport to a remote hospital—the next closest PICU was over 100 miles away. If air transport is unavailable due to severe weather, the only other option is ground transport for several hours in an ambulance.

After hearing Chiann’s remarkable tale, the crowd at the Bakersfield Country Club participated enthusiastically in the silent and live auctions, and raised over $400,000 for the pediatric programs at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. 

twoToday Chiann is a healthy high school senior.  Throughout 2015 she has served as a Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals ambassador for the state of California, telling her story and helping to raise awareness of the need for advanced pediatric critical care throughout the state.

Thanks to the vision of BMH in creating a pediatric program and opening a PICU, Chiann was able to get her critical care locally.  And thanks to the availability and advanced training of a pediatric anesthesiologist with intensive care expertise, Chiann is here today. It was my privilege to be a small part of that experience, and to hear how many lives have been touched by the care my husband and his partners deliver.

As Chiann’s and David’s story demonstrates—when seconds count, physician anesthesiologists save lives.

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