The signs are all around Karolee McLaughlin.
She sees one first thing in the morning on the bathroom mirror. There’s another one posted on the door she opens on her way out of the house each day. And sometimes, when things are especially hectic, there’s another one on her steering wheel.
They are reminders that bear a simple message: Stop.
For McLaughlin, that reminder is a lifesaver.
More than 12 years ago, McLaughlin was a busy wife and director of music at a residential school for at-risk students. She sometimes worked up to 18-hour days and was always on the go. She didn’t have time to stop.
During a snowboarding trip to Eldora Mountain Resort with students, she hit a patch of ice and crashed, losing consciousness and injuring her knee. No one knew then that the fall would be the beginning of a decade of serious health problems.
After a decade of serious health problems, Karolee McLaughlin’s doctor wrote her a prescription that became her lifesaver. Photo by Josh Barrett, for UCHealth.
Six months later, McLaughlin suffered a transient ischemic attack, also known as a mini-stroke. It occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain is interrupted briefly. Sometimes called a “warning stroke,” mini strokes often are followed by a major, permanently disabling stroke. As she lay in bed, she felt frozen, unable to move. She couldn’t do anything, she recalled.
This was the first of a series of five mini-strokes in three years that would take a toll on her. The strokes caused slurred speech, light affected her eyesight and even the slightest noise triggered such excruciating pain that she needed earplugs.
Through the turmoil, Curt Weibel, a nurse practitioner at UCHealth’s Primary Care Clinic – Estes Park, listened – and helped. He was instrumental in her recovery and never gave up. He sent McLaughlin to several neurologists and cardiologists, but nobody could identify the problem.
McLaughlin’s fifth mini-stroke was especially devastating – it took the breath from her life. She needed oxygen 24/7 and, unable to perform her job requirements, she was placed on disability. For two years, McLaughlin lay on a couch in the depths of depression, unable to go to work or play the musical instruments that she loved to play.
“For the first time, I could understand why someone would take their life. Can you imagine the scene my husband saw each day coming home from work?’’ she said, recalling her darkest days. “You forget those marriage vows when you are young and frivolous. The love and support my husband and family provided me was the foundation to keep me going.”
After more tests and examinations by specialists, a discovery was made: McLaughlin had a hole the size of a nickel in her heart. Known as a patent foramen ovale, the hole in the upper chamber of the heart failed to close after birth. Many people who have this condition are unaware they are afflicted. In McLaughlin’s rare case, uncleansed blood bypassed the lungs, leaking from the right atrium to the left, and caused small clots to travel to the brain, resulting in the mini-strokes.
McLaughlin was awake during the surgery she had in February 2009 to repair the heart. The surgery was near miraculous – her oxygen levels improved from 70 to 98 percent. She watched as a student doctor, under the tutelage of a seasoned doctor, guided two tubes from her groin to her heart. To patch the hole, physicians used a seal that Weibel helped develop in the 1990s as part of a medical device development team.
“Is it ironic, coincidence or divine order that my practitioner would be involved in the device that saved my life?” McLaughlin asked.
Excited to feel good again, McLaughlin, at times returned to the ‘always-on-the-go’ life. Every time she overextended, however, she experienced another setback — a seizure. After a bad seizure in November 2012, she found herself back in Weibel’s office. He looked into her eyes and said this: “STOP! Enough is enough.”
He explained that if she kept the ‘always-on-the-go’’ pace, she risked being incapacitated for life. Weibel pulled out a prescription pad and, in big bold letters wrote: “STOP.” He then signed his name.
McLaughlin is not the first patient Weibel has ordered to stop in his 18 years as a primary care provider at Timberline. He sees many patients who get so busy in their lives and aren’t really enjoying life.
“I really have to tell them to stop because it puts more stress on their body. When it’s just busy and they’re not doing what they really want to do, the STOP really helps them focus on what’s important in life,” Weibel said.
He talked to her about overextending herself and giving her body time to heal. He talked to her about being patient and about her good fortune – a second chance at life. And then, he asked her to consider: “What are you going to do with it?”
McLaughlin won’t ever forget that conversation with Weibel. She committed to living a healthier life. Weibel and Mary Hunter, a registered nurse and herbalist, worked together to help with medications.
Weibel suggested that she lose the weight she put on during all those years on the couch and so McLaughlin worked with counselors at Slimgenics, She lost 60 pounds and has kept it off for more than two years. She hasn’t had a bad seizure since last November, and every time she starts to feel as if one is coming on, she stops what she is doing and focuses on relaxing.
She’s picked up musical instruments again and begun, occasionally, playing the harp and the piano at her church. The vibrations from the strings through the wood are healing, she said.
Like anyone, McLaughlin can still get caught in the sometimes frenetic pace of life. When she does, her husband or her close friends will step in and remind her to take it easy. Even her small service dog, Lakota, can smell changes in her chemistry and alerts her to slow down.
That prescription with four letters, written by Weibel, is framed and posted. It hangs on the inside of the front door of the McLaughlin home – at eye level.
Each time McLaughlin reaches for the door handle, she asks herself to remember to live life in support of what she values most: her health, her family, her friends and her faith.