When Julie Wendt felt a sudden pain, and then warmth in her leg, she knew exactly what was going on.
Years of watching the hit TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” had taught Julie the signs of a blood clot, and she knew she needed to act quickly. She yelled for her husband, Jim, who was on the second floor of the house.
“I said, very calmly, ‘I have a blood clot in my leg, and I think it’s moving to my lungs because now I can’t breathe. You need to call 911,’” she says.
Indeed, the blood clot in Julie’s leg had broken off and traveled to her lungs. This led to a pulmonary embolism that then caused her to go into cardiac arrest.
Jim had to leave Julie to call 911, and when he returned, she was unconscious. The Neenah residents live close to the fire department, and it didn’t take long for first responders to arrive. Once they were on the scene, the team worked on Julie for 30 to 40 minutes.
“They would get a pulse and then they would lose it,” Julie says.
Finally, the paramedics got Julie stable enough to transport to ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah. That first night in January 2022 was critical. After she arrived at the emergency department, the medical team worked to get Julie to a place where she could be moved to the intensive care unit.
The team performed extensive CPR on Julie for about 40 minutes and twice sent a chaplain to ask Jim if he wanted them to continue. Both times he said yes.
Eventually, they got Julie stabilized. That evening, she was intubated and moved to the ICU, where she remained for eight days.
Jim called Julie’s son, Matt, who lives in Texas, right away. Matt arrived later that same evening, and he stayed in Neenah and worked remotely for several weeks. Soon after he arrived, he got to work on a project for Julie. “I have the greatest kid in the world,” Julie says. “The first thing I remember after waking up in the ICU is this beautiful picture board that my son had made. It was all these family pictures, and it stayed with me the whole time in the hospital and the nursing home.”
‘Long Road Back’
Julie would need all the love, support and encouragement she could get, as a tough battle and 40-day hospitalization lay ahead for her.
“When everything shuts down like it did, it is such a long road back,” she says.
Making matters worse, Julie’s extended hospitalization took place during the Delta surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that meant strict visitor restrictions. Initially, Julie’s medical team told her it would be 20 days before anyone could come and visit her.
“Part of me was thinking, I’m still going to be here in 20 days? Little did I know,” Julie says.
On Valentine’s Day, though, Jim and Matt were able to visit, and from that day forward, they could come every day. That connection would prove vital because the time Julie spent in the hospital would not be easy.
A few months prior to her cardiac arrest, Julie had broken her wrist and had to have surgery. Because of the timing of her medical emergency, she didn’t have adequate time to rehab her wrist, so she faced that pain as well throughout her recovery.
Julie also developed kidney issues. She had a port placed near her collarbone, and her care team prepared her for the need to have dialysis three times per week, possibly for the rest of her life. Luckily, though, her kidney function began to improve. She would end up not needing dialysis and was able to have the port removed.
Beyond that, however, Julie experienced more heart problems. For a couple of days, she experienced tachycardia and had a resting heart rate of 160 beats per minute. The normal range is between 60 and 100 BPM.
Julie underwent a procedure called cardioversion. It uses quick, low-energy shocks to restore a regular heart rhythm. The procedure was successful in getting Julie’s heart back into a normal sinus rhythm.
After nearly six weeks in the hospital, Julie was ready to move to a nursing home. She credits many incredible ThedaCare team members for helping her through her hospitalization, from doctors to countless nurses to occupational, physical and speech therapists.
“There’s a whole level of humility that you don’t even think is possible, but boy you get there, for sure,” she says of her ordeal. “[The care team] makes you laugh about it, though. Nobody ever made me feel bad about myself.”
Amazing Circle of Support
After leaving the hospital, Julie spent 30 days at ThedaCare nursing home Peabody Manor in Appleton. There, she began more intensive rehabilitation, and she quickly set a goal for herself: to be able to go home without having to use a wheelchair. Her century-old Craftsman-style home has a lot of steps, and she wanted to be able to navigate it.
From day one at Peabody, Julie says her care team pushed her in the best way possible. She had a lot of ground to gain, and occupational and physical therapists worked with her to help her as she eased back into daily living tasks.
Moving to this next phase felt glorious for Julie, even the simple acts of showering and getting dressed every day.
“It’s things like that that you take for granted,” she says.
On April 6, 70 days after her cardiac arrest, Julie finally returned home. She achieved her goal of not needing a wheelchair. In those early days, she was able walk up the stairs to get into her home, but not make it up the stairs to the other levels of the house. She started out using a walker at home and eventually progressed to a cane.
Julie completed six weeks of in-home physical therapy and then went on to complete the cardiac rehabilitation program through ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care, which she says was a turning point in her recovery. As part of the program, she received education around physical activity and nutrition.
“I walked in using a cane and three weeks later was doing 40 mins of cardio,” she says. “This was my light-bulb moment really made me believe that a full recovery was possible. The people who worked with me were just inspiring. They gave me confidence.”
That’s exactly the experience is designed to do, says Dr. Gabriel Mufuka, a cardiologist with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care, who oversees cardiac rehab program.
“It’s a structured, supervised program where we monitor the patients, combined with teaching to prevent whatever disease process they have,” he says. “It’s not only exercising, but we’re actually trying to change certain behaviors.”
Through the program, Julie says she made strides she never thought possible. She’s gone on to lose 12 pounds and 3 inches around her waist. These days, she enjoys meeting a friend at the YMCA for walks and doing chair yoga.
Reflecting on all she’s gone through, Julie expresses gratitude to her friends and family, especially her husband, son, sisters, and niece, Kelly, a nurse practitioner who helped oversee her care.
“I was surrounded by so many people who really were pulling for me,” she says. “You really realize how much you’re loved once you go through something like that.”
Dr. Mufuka celebrates the progress Julie has made as well.
“The kind of blood clot she had, they kill a lot of patients every year,” he says. “Seeing a patient who survived that, it brings us joy.”
Julie’s cardiac arrest came out of nowhere for her. Her advice to others is to be aware of your body and know what’s normal for you. When something feels wrong, act quickly; don’t delay, she says.
“Be a good patient and follow the instructions. Ask questions and be your own advocate,” she adds. “And watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”