As a police officer and detective, Elizabeth Finch is no stranger to pain or strife. Her job requires stamina, resiliency and determination.
That “cop mindset” gets her home safely to her children and helps her protect hundreds of other children as a detective in the Crimes Against Children Unit at the Greeley Police Department.
That strength helped her survive — and recover — when her body began self-destructing Sept. 10, 2021.
When ITP has your body attacking itself
Finch had just gotten home from her regular shift and changed out of her work clothes when she noticed something odd. She had purple specks covering the lower half of her body. The day prior, she’d completed intense physical training for work, so she thought the strange bruising might be a result. She decided to stop by her employer’s health clinic the following day and get it checked out.
While getting her kids off to school the next morning, her nose began bleeding.
“It wasn’t bad, but it was enough to give me a bad feeling,” Finch said.
She dropped her kids off at school and called Todd, her husband, and headed to a nearby stand-alone emergency room. Todd was working his shift as a sergeant at the Greeley Police Department. He said he’d change out of his uniform and meet her at the emergency room.
A visit to the Greeley Emergency Room
At the ER, blood tests revealed Finch had extremely low levels of platelets, the cells that help your blood clot. The concern was serious — maybe even life-threatening — so Finch needed to be admitted to UCHealth Greeley Hospital.
Todd arrived and the staff decided he could transport his wife to Greeley Hospital if he agreed to go directly there.
At Greeley Hospital, a review of her test results confirmed Finch was battling an autoimmune disease called immune thrombocytopenia (ITP). The disorder leads to easy or excessive bruising and bleeding.
Doctors started her on the standard treatment: steroids. But the next day, there was no improvement. Doctors then tried intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), a plasma therapy that aids in the fight against infections. That didn’t work either, and doctors decided to try a blood transfusion in hopes of replenishing her diminished platelets.
Over five days, Finch received 10 transfusions.
“My body was destroying the platelets quicker than they could pump it in,” she said.
On her fifth day in the hospital, Finch woke with a headache and began vomiting. A scan showed hemorrhaging in her brain. She needed to go to a higher acuity hospital, and doctors decided to transfer her by ambulance to University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Fighting autoimmune diseases: One of the worst ITP diagnosis doctors had seen
“Our immune system is supposed to protect us from foreign invaders, but in people with autoimmune diseases, it gets mixed up and for whatever reason attacks things that are good,” said Dr. Genevieve Moyer, a UCHealth hematologist on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
“Elizabeth’s immune system was attacking platelets to an undetectable level,” she said. “ITP is one of the more common conditions in hematology, but Elizabeth was unique because of how severe it was. She had such a strong immune response that standard therapies weren’t working.”
Moyer said Finch got “the kitchen-sink approach to treating abnormal bleeding.” In addition to steroids, she was on medication to trick the immune system. And she continued to get platelet infusions to keep her alive.
“Platelet infusions usually take 15 minutes, but we had to drip platelets into her over several hours, knowing that once they landed in the body, her immune system consumed them,” Moyer said.
The bleeding in Finch’s brain continued to worsen, and swelling caused dangerous pressure on her brain. Critically ill, her lungs began to collapse, and on Sept. 18 – her eighth day in the hospital – she stopped breathing.
Todd was almost to the hospital after spending the night with their kids in Greeley when he got a frantic call from Finch’s brother. He parked his car and ran to her bedside.
“She was intubated, and I thought I would never talk to her again.” Todd said.
Doctors advised Todd they needed to work urgently. Relieving pressure on Finch’s brain was risky because of her haywire immune system.
“When there is bleeding into the brain, it causes increased pressure, and that can be rapidly fatal,” Moyer said. “If we did nothing, it was likely she wouldn’t have survived. If she did continue to bleed, this surgery would ensure it didn’t accumulate in the brain but was tubed out into a bag.”
A risky ITP treatment plan, but no other options left
Todd permitted doctors to go forward with the procedure that would drain blood from her brain, relieving that pressure. They would give her a blood-clotting drug to prevent her from bleeding out. The drug lasts only a few hours, so while it was still in effect, doctors performed a partial splenic embolization, a non-surgical procedure restricting the spleen’s function by about 50-70%.
“The spleen is where the body sends platelets for destruction, so if you can cut that off, then platelets stay in the blood longer,” Moyer said. “It’s dangerous to do, as we put a catheter into the artery, and that can be associated with bleeding, but it’s worth the risk if we can quiet down the process (of the spleen) a bit.”
Todd told the doctors: “Just let her survive. She can do the rest. She is the strongest person I know.”
The surgery was successful, but to help her body recover, Finch remained in a medically-induced coma and on a ventilator for the next three weeks.
Nothing in Todd’s 25-year career as a police officer had prepared him for such trauma.
“When you’ve been a cop as long as I have, you see things,” Todd said. “I’ve been through a lot in life, but nothing like this. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
As a cop, he said he couldn’t help but be a realist about the gravity of his wife’s condition.
“Thoughts of what I’d tell the kids. I have to plan a funeral. I was trying to stay positive, but as a responsible parent, you must prepare,” Todd said.
The battle against ITP not yet over
About a week after surgery, Finch’s body started to respond to treatment. The trouble was, it responded too robustly and her platelet counts were through the roof. Doctors switched gears to lower her platelet levels and prevent blood clots.
Finch, ever the fighter, stabilized. Gradually, the life-saving machines that had helped to keep her alive, were removed from Finch’s room. Each time a piece of equipment left, Todd gained hope. Finch remembers telling herself repeatedly: just keep breathing. Todd knew his wife would work diligently to breathe on her own, and he was right.
“I knew I couldn’t give up. I was not going to leave my kids motherless,” she said.
Ultimately, doctors took Finch off the ventilator, and another machine was no longer needed in the room.
After nearly a month under sedation, Finch awoke Oct. 12, 2021. She spent another week in the intensive care unit before moving to an acute care unit. On Oct. 29, 2021, she was well enough to leave University of Colorado Hospital, and Todd drove her to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital for inpatient rehabilitation.
There was still a long recovery ahead.
Finding the strength to continue to recover from ITP diagnosis
“You don’t realize how much muscle you lose when you don’t move,” she said.
Although still mentally strong, Finch lost some vigor while in a coma. For the next two weeks, she worked with speech, physical and occupational therapists to regain her lost strength.
It was hard, and at one point, she questioned whether she’d ever be the mom and cop she wanted to be. “But I pushed, pushed, pushed. But I couldn’t do it alone,” she said.
With help from physical therapists, she moved from a wheelchair to a walker and, eventually, to a walking stick.
By mid-December 2021, she was back home, attending outpatient rehab several times a week at Greeley Hospital.
“They pushed me so hard,” Finch said. “Every muscle in my body hurt. Every time I walked in, I thought, ‘I’m in for it today.’ But they got me on track. I loved my therapists there.”
Finch admits that at one point in her recovery, she wondered if it was time for her to retire from the force, but she quickly put that out of her mind.
“I’m not done with my work yet. There are a lot of people in this world that still need help,” she said.
Recovery takes a team
Her determination and recovery amazed both her doctors and herself, especially after she saw her brain scans taken when doctors first hospitalized her.
“I was shocked because I’ve seen kids with traumatic brain injuries, and I’m thinking, ‘How am I walking and talking?’’’
She credits fantastic doctors, nurses and therapists who did everything they could to keep her alive.
“I’m so grateful for my medical team. They saved my life,” she said.
Her medical team knows they weren’t the only ones fighting for Finch.
“This is possibly the worst case I’ve seen,” Moyer said. “But at no point did the medical team, her family or herself look at this as the end. There was always that determination that no matter how bad it got, there would be something else to help her turn the corner.
“Her resilience and family support allowed her to get through this. Not only did she recover and leave the hospital, but is back to her normal baseline activity. That is not common and is a testament to her strength, her family support and the huge medical team that was fighting for her.”
Returning to helping others
Finch is back at the Greeley Police Department and helping children in her community. Her personal struggle has given her a new perspective.
“I’m more grateful,” she said. “I took a lot for granted before almost dying. I almost left my kids motherless. I want to be more grateful every day.’’
Finch knows that her role as a mother and detective is indispensable. Still, she said she’s been doing even more outside her job to give back to the community to show her appreciation for all that she has.
“Being a working mom and raising kids, I never took the time to appreciate the little things in life,” she said. “But I’m grateful and think I’m a better mom and cop because of it.”