Earlier this year, local filmmaker David Fine got the worst news of his life. Doctors told him that his wife, Alison Snowden, had no chance of survival.
“It was devastating,” he recalls, wiping tears from his eyes. “I had to share this terrible news with our friends and relatives, that there was no hope – we’d lost her. I was going to lose my wife and my creative partner. Our nineteen-year-old daughter, Lily, was going to lose her mom.”
The Oscar-winning couple had been working on their latest animated film when Alison had contracted a virus which just wouldn’t go away. It triggered what was thought to be a lung infection which doctors had hoped would be cured quickly by antibiotics, but it wasn’t that simple. At VGH emergency, her oxygen levels were too low to send her home. Over the next few days things got worse. A lot worse. Her oxygen levels dropped so precipitously that she ended up intubated and in an induced coma. It was like a nightmare out of nowhere.
Over the course of the next four weeks, doctors at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) worked feverishly to find a solution, but test after test came up negative. There was no stopping the total destruction of her lungs brought on by a rare condition called Acute Respiratory Pneumonitis. Survival rates are low and so the hope was simply that the body would stop what it was doing and just recover. There was no permanent damage to her lungs – yet.
“We were just desperately hanging onto the hope that she would get better. We saw incremental improvement in the CT scans, but suddenly things got very bad and we were told the worse news ever. My daughter and I sat there while Alison’s doctor explained that there was no hope. Her lungs were completely destroyed and she would never recover. She remained on life support, but she wasn’t coming back.”
David asked about a lung transplant, but was told her body was too weak to survive the operation. Doctors had investigated this option and showed David the letter from the transplant team confirming that they couldn’t help her.
“I couldn’t believe it. We had been so hopeful and strong, but this was the breaking point. I had to start thinking the unthinkable, but I still didn’t understand why she was still on life support if nothing could be done. It was the worst day of my life and our daughter, Lily, was devastated.”
But two days later, Dr. Gordon Finlayson, Alison’s intensive care physician, called. He asked David and Lily to come in right away to give consent to a radical idea which might possibly save her. Suddenly there was a glimmer of hope when things had looked so very dark.
The ICU and transplant team at VGH were going to attempt something which had never been done, but it was fraught with risk and there were no guarantees. They would wake Alison from her induced coma and try to build her strength enough to survive an emergency lung transplant. After a month in a coma, her muscles were so weak she could barely move or communicate in any way. And of course, her lungs were destroyed, so she had to breath using a very special machine called ECMO. This machine oxygenates blood outside of the body. Alison would have garden hose size tubes taking her blood out, through the machine and back in. It’s such a fragile process that an operator has to sit by the ECMO machine 24/7 to make sure it is working exactly as it needs to. Over the years, VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation has funded several ECMO machines.
VGH is one of the only facilities in the country that could facilitate such treatment and it was the first time a patient had been put on ECMO before they were even on the transplant list. ECMO would keep her alive, but she had to do physio to get strong enough to get on the list and then suitable lungs had to show up as soon as possible. So many hurdles.
April 3rd was Alison’s birthday and she got the best gift ever. On that day, she was told that she was now on the transplant list. A huge box was ticked, but another huge box loomed. How long would it take for donor lungs to arrive?
Just one week later, David got a midnight call.
“I had just fallen asleep when my cell phone started buzzing. I fumbled for the phone. It was Dr. Finlayson and he said, ‘Don’t panic, there’s nothing wrong. You need to come in. We have lungs.”
Dr. Finlayson met David and Lily at the hospital with the surgeon who would perform the operation, Dr. Yee. They both explained that Alison’s new lungs were being flown in and her operation would happen at 3 am that morning.
“Later, I asked Dr. Finlayson why he had come in at midnight. He clearly was not on shift as he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He told me he wanted to be there to see our faces. I thought it was so incredible that he did that. We met so many amazing, dedicated people here. In the darkest of times, I learned so much about the incredible humanity at VGH.”
Dr. Finlayson says it was an easy decision to come in, off-duty, that night.
“Dr. John Yee called me up that night and told me that we had accepted a pair of lungs for Alison,” he recalled. “I wasn’t on service but I jumped to the chance because I had formed a really good relationship with them and I could finally deliver this good news.”
“We are very privileged to share these intimate moments with these people, but they don’t happen too often,” he continues. “In many ways, it’s like being a pearl diver. You spend all this time under water opening up all of these oysters and occasionally in medicine, you find a pearl. That was definitely a pearl moment.”
Post operation brought more complications as Alison would not stop bleeding. They had to take her back to OR three times just to mop up blood and try to stem the flow. Eventually it just stopped, but doctors did not hide their grave concern about the degree of bleeding. Each hurdle we jumped made way for the next and this was another hurdle.
Alison is an acclaimed, Oscar winning artist, but she couldn’t speak or barely move, let alone lift a finger to draw. There would be months of rehab and recovery to get back to normal.
“Every little achievement along the way was inspiring, but the morning I walked in and saw a wobbly drawing of a happy face and the words, ‘good morning sweethearts’, I almost fainted,” he remembers.
Now, some six months later, after recovery at VGH and GF Strong, she’s back to baking bread and finished up the couple’s latest animated film.
“I couldn’t imagine being without her,” David says. “We live together, we work together, she’s Lily’s best friend. Every day I lay eyes on her, I feel like it’s a magic, amazing miracle day. I am so grateful for the incredible support and resources she received at VGH to save her life.”
He wipes his eyes.
“Through every terrifying moment, I kept my hope,” David says, looking at a photo of his wife. “I never gave up and neither did the team at VGH. We were there a long time and got to know many wonderful people who provided not just medical care, but emotional support. This is a very, very special place and as hard as this experience was, to be introduced to so many amazing, dedicated people has been no less than life altering. I learned so much about how caring and supportive people can be and not only to Alison, but to me and Lily too.
We were nurtured and cared for at VGH almost like we were joint patients with Alison. They cared for her and they saved her life, against all odds and I can’t find words that adequately express how grateful I am.” – David Fine
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