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In Sickness and in Health

Jessica Clausen had everything going for her: highly educated, athletic -- and beautiful. And to top it off, today was her wedding day.

She and her mom, Teryl, had just finished decorating the chapel. An hour to spare before hair and makeup, they stopped at a south Fargo coffee shop.

“I was in the restroom and my right arm went limp,” recalls Jessica. “I walked out to tell my mom, but I couldn’t get the words out.”

Teryl saw the symptoms and acted quickly; Jessica’s grandmother had suffered a stroke years ago. She immediately drove Jessica to the nearest ER.

“I was in a daze,” says Jessica. “I remember on the way over trying to put my right foot in my sandal. I just couldn’t do it.”

Even today, three months later, the whole experience feels surreal to Jessica. A stroke at age 27? And on May 27 – the day of her wedding and her golden birthday?

Fast, appropriate help

When fiance Taylor Mertz got the call from Jessica’s mom, he hoped the problem was minor -- perhaps hyperventilation caused by nerves. But when he saw Jessica in the ER, he knew it was “absolutely serious.” A physician in training, he was familiar with strokes and how devastating they could be. Would Jessica even survive?

Frightened and overwhelmed, he didn’t let it show. In fact Jessica remembers he was strong, capable … and tender. “He came up to my hospital bed and just held my hand. I didn’t have much of a grip and I couldn’t talk. He asked if we should get married right away. That was so sweet,” she says.

Jessica’s stroke was treated promptly and appropriately with the clot-dissolving medicine t-PA (tissue plasminogen activator). Used within a certain timeframe of stroke symptoms, t-PA can greatly increase the chances of survival and recovery.

“We were very happy it could be used -- and it worked,” says Taylor. “We had so many people praying for us.”

Jessica’s symptoms resolved in five days, but important questions remained: Why the stroke? What could prevent a future one?

Fixing the underlying problem

Tests revealed Jessica’s stroke was caused by a patent foramen ovale (PFO), a “hole” in the heart between the two upper chambers --the left and right atrium. Usually the opening closes at birth, but in 12 to 15 percent of people it does not -- and never causes a problem.

While very rare, a PFO-related stroke can occur when a blood clot forms in the vein. Ordinarily it travels to the lungs and gets filtered out, but a PFO creates communication between the left and right side of the heart. This allows the clot to bypass the filtering system, pass through the left atrium and lodge in the brain.

Options for treating Jessica’s PFO included lifelong use of blood-thinning medication or PFO closure. She was referred to Dr. Thomas Haldis, Sanford interventional cardiologist and the only physician in the region with expertise and experience in minimally invasive PFO closures. He learned the technique while in training in Pennsylvania and has performed many since joining Sanford six years ago.

“For years, PFO closures required open heart surgery. Now we have new technology that enables an approach that’s much easier on the patient,” says Dr. Haldis. “Guided by ultrasound, we’re able to deliver and implant the patching device percutaneously through a thin tube. We essentially close off the hole, and the patient can go home the next day.”

Jessica underwent the successful procedure on July 29 at Sanford Heart Center. Today she’s overwhelmingly relieved. “It’s so great to know this problem is fixed, and I don’t have to worry about another stroke,” she says.

On track to live her dreams, she talks about the joys of one day having children, pursuing a counseling career and participating in medical mission work with Taylor.

Best wishes Jessica and Taylor Mertz!

Thankfulness for Jessica’s life far outweighed any disappointment of a postponed wedding.

On June 5, the couple and their families gathered for a small ceremony at Island Park in Fargo. The flowers were orchids and roses. A harpist played. A horse-drawn carriage transported the bride and groom.

“We were both exhausted, but it was still a storybook wedding,” says Taylor. “It was beautiful.”

And the words “in sickness and in health” never carried so much meaning.

Posted Date: October 2011