Published on December 09, 2021

Emergency Surgery Doesn’t Slow Down 83-Year-Old Baldwin Woman

Eighty-three year old Phyllis Hetrick pictured on her motorcycle, embraces every day after two battles with cancer, the death of her husband and an emergency surgery at MyMichigan Medical Center Alpena.

Eighty-three year old Phyllis Hetrick pictured on her motorcycle, embraces every day after two battles with cancer, the death of her husband and an emergency surgery at MyMichigan Medical Center Alpena.

Roughly six years ago, Phyllis Hetrick, now 83, was struggling to find meaning and happiness after surviving two battles with cancer and losing her husband. After a morning of staring out her window overlooking the woods, she made a conscious decision to take charge of her life’s trajectory and seek out a new experience each day, including getting a tattoo and learning to ride a motorcycle.  She has been living with purpose every day since.

Earlier this year, Hetrick made a trip to northeast Michigan to see a friend but shortly after arrival fell ill. Two days later and three hours from home, she drove herself to the Emergency Department (ED) at MyMichigan Medical Center Alpena. Little did she realize she would be staying there for three weeks but refers to her time there as “magnificently wonderful and a blessing.”

Hetrick arrived in the ED vomiting and unable to eat. A scan showed a bowel obstruction in the small intestine, and she was admitted. Her treatment began with a nasogastric (ng) tube that was inserted through her nose into the stomach to try to decompress the pressure caused by the blockage. “I learned to make friends with that tube,” she said. “I knew the staff was doing all they could to help me feel better without surgery.”

When Hetrick’s condition did not improve, she met with General Surgeon Thomas Thornton, M.D. “I liked Dr. Thornton right away,” said Hetrick. “He was very kind and I told him: I trust you. I’m not afraid.” Dr. Thornton performed an operation to break up scar tissue from previous operations as part of her course of cancer treatment causing the blockage.

“It was a difficult surgery as her scar tissue was extensive,” said Dr. Thornton. “Recovery time on a surgery like this one can depend on the complexity of the procedure, general health, age, etc.  Mrs. Hetrick took good care of herself, but scar tissue is out of a person’s control. To ensure she was healthy enough to return home, she had to spend some time with us before we were able to discharge her.”

Hetrick was motivated to get better however difficult the recovery.  She was given an aggressive round of antibiotics and potassium, minerals and nutrients intravenously until she was able to eat.  “Dr. Thornton made time to come see me one evening, just to sit and have a chat. He told me about his family and their upcoming trip. That meant a lot to me.”

Hospitalists Ali Hasaan, M.D., and James Decker, M.D., both cared for Hetrick between Dr. Thornton’s visits. She reported warm concern and great care from them as well. She was encouraged to walk to aid in regaining bowel function.  “I love walking and was happy to be urged to do it,” said Hetrick. “I took all of my hardware with me and walked the third floor as often as I could. I made a point to stop by all the other patients’ rooms to share a wave or hello because I know how important a smile and warm greeting is to feeling better.”

Hetrick created a bit of a reputation for herself on the floor for her energy, attitude and free spirit. “I admired her resilience and ongoing optimistic attitude despite the adversity she has experienced over the years,” said Dr. Decker.  “I think her willingness to share her life story with health care team helped her heal and helped us better ourselves.”

Caitlin Kortman, R.N., cared for Hetrick often while she was in the Medical Center. “Mrs. Hetrick was very involved in and knowledgeable about her care,” said Kortman. “She is a go-getter and made the most of every day. I was impressed by her determination to recover and return home to her dog and her fun-loving life.”

After three weeks, Hetrick was discharged and received a strong follow-up report from Dr. Thornton one month later. “I can’t say enough good about the care I received and my treatment,” said Hetrick. “It’s a blessing I was near a good hospital for this unusual emergency. All the things that happened to me during my time there made for a wonderful, meaningful experience.”

Hetrick is back on her motorcycle making the most of each day. She is living by the motto of her tattoo, which reads: Choose Happiness.