The number of coincidences that needed to happen in order for O’Dell to be preparing to celebrate his 50th birthday party later this year, however, is truly miraculous.
The story of O’Dell’s journey from death’s doorstep to recovery began inauspiciously enough. He and his son were doing some yard work two years ago when he began to feel off.
O’Dell’s wife Dawn said she knew something was wrong with her husband, but never suspected a heart attack.
“He was 47 years old,” Dawn O’Dell said. “I wasn’t looking for a heart attack in my 47-year-old, otherwise healthy husband, who had been a cop in the military. He’d just been cleared for this major back surgery. The surgeon went over and over and over him to make sure he was healthy enough for an eight-hour back surgery.”
Though she didn’t think his symptoms were bad enough to call 911, Dawn and her son finally drove O’Dell to Corning Hospital.
After 30 minutes, O’Dell was diagnosed with a heart attack. He was then transferred to Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira. This, Dawn O’Dell said, is where the first set of miracles occurred.
“It was craziness,” Dawn O’Dell said. “We got there and I thought we were in the wrong place because there was not a soul at 9 p.m. in the Arnot ER.”
Dawn and her son sat in the waiting room, eager for some news. Finally a nurse came out to tell her two cardiologists were working on her husband.
“Wait a minute, there’s nobody in the ER,” Dawn O’Dell said. “There’s no one even with a sliver. Why are there two cardiologists here? We found out that one only lives five minutes from the hospital and the two cardiologists are good friends and were picnicking together when they got the call.”
After what seemed like an eternity, Dawn O’Dell found out a mobile cardio unit would be transporting her husband to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.
The device pumps blood through the body at 9,300 RPMs. It’s battery operated, which meant that O’Dell would have to carry around 14-volt batteries that are attached to a cord coming out of his side.
“For some people it’s called destination therapy, which means they are going to live the rest of their lives with it,” Dawn O’Dell said. “For some its called a bridge to transplant. In a situation like Jon’s, this could be a bridge to transplant if he qualified for a transplant later down the road.”
O’Dell made it through the surgery, but suffered a stroke during the procedure, the second he suffered during this ordeal.
Another setback, another miracle.
“Within 12 hours of his stroke, he’s dropping his leg off the side of the bed,” Dawn O’Dell said. “He’s twitching his right hand. It turned out the only affect was his language center. He had aphasia from the first stroke. The same thing happened the second time.”
Dawn said O’Dell has problems accessing the language center of his brain. He knows what he wants to say, but has trouble getting the words from his brain to his mouth.
Aside from having his gall bladder removed in October, O’Dell was moving on with his life. By November O’Dell was recovered enough to go hunting with his sons. He had also returned to work at the Bath VA as a substance abuse counselor.
O’Dell was on the transplant list for a new heart, but was placed on the low priority list. Many people on the list go their whole lives without a transplant.
Then another miracle occurred, though not in a form anyone would expect.
O’Dell developed an infection around the cord attached to his LVAD.
That moved him to the high priority list.
O’Dell was placed on the high priority list in November. In May they received the call they’d been waiting for.
“They said ‘Mrs. O’Dell, we have a heart for your husband,’” Dawn O’Dell said. “We had to be in the car on the road to Rochester within 15 minutes.”
Dawn O’Dell said they beat that deadline by seven minutes, despite some bumbling and fumbling reminiscent of a Three Stooges episode.
Dawn was warned to be prepared for disappointment.
“They told us you can expect to have a dry run at least a couple times,” Dawn said. “They can say its a perfect match, but they get there and they disconnect the heart and they try to restart it and if it doesn’t restart they aren’t going to use it for a transplant, so they don’t know until they get there. That didn’t happen. It started right back up.”
O’Dell made it through the transplant surgery with his new heart working fine.
Of course O’Dell wasn’t free and clear just yet.
He had suffered another stroke during the procedure. More serious was the bleeding that had developed around the scar tissue created by the LVAD.
“There was probably six to eight hours of bleeding after the surgery,” Dawn said. “He took over 60 units of blood. Units of blood were hanging over his head and people were squeezing them into him. As fast as they were squeezing them, they were coming right back out.”
Some medical glue was used to stop the bleeding, but O’Dell had suffered more complications.
“Something up there got pinched and he experienced something called Compartment Syndrome, where the vessels get squeezed,” Dawn O’Dell said. “When they started to draw the fluids back off him, it wouldn’t come off the arm.”
Doctors had to perform an emergency procedure. They made four incisions on O’Dell’s arm to let the fluid drain.
“They left (the incisions) open about a week and a half,” Dawn O’Dell said. “They packed wet gauze on the muscle and took all the muscle out of the forearm. The surgeon talked to us a few days afterward and said he’d never have use of his wrist or left hand.”
O’Dell had survived too much, however, for a doctor to say the word ‘never’ to him. During a physical therapy session, O’Dell was able to move his left wrist an inch or so.
While a story of survival like O’Dell’s is certainly worth retelling, Dawn O’Dell said their purpose isn’t for personal recognition.
Their reason for relaying O’Dell’s story is twofold.
The first is to raise awareness about recognizing heart attack symptoms, and the importance of being an organ donor.
The other reason is to express their gratitude for everything their friends, family and complete strangers did to help them through their ordeal.
“So many people have helped us,” Dawn O’Dell said. “We want to give back. As a teacher and a counselor, we’ve been the givers. For us to have all this receiving going on ... One thing I know from being a receiver, I will now be a better giver.”