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David Clegg: I was always playing sports like rugby growing up. When I went home after my first year of college, my parents kept trying to get me to see an adult doctor. The doctor said I had a strong heart murmur and I needed to get it checked out. That caught me off guard. I had my first aortic valve replacement five weeks later.
Yee-Ping Sun, MD (David’s doctor at Brigham & Women’s Hospital): David was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. Most people are born with three cusps of the aortic valve; David was born with two. That means the valve can get narrow or it can get very, very leaky, and patients are more predisposed to infection.
DAVE: In total, I’ve had three aortic valve replacements. That first one when I was 19, the second when I was 32, and then in 2018, when I went in for an operation to get a mechanical valve that we thought would be forever.
DR. SUN: The challenge is that any mechanical valve we put in is never quite as good as his native valve. With David, they weren’t able to get in a very large valve in 2016, so he was having chest pain and shortness of breath and really couldn’t do anything related to his job. So, we had to figure out what we could do to try to fix this valve.
Abbey Clegg (David’s wife): Dave and I got married in December 2017. We knew before the wedding he’d have to have the surgery again because the previous valve replacement hadn’t worked as well as they had hoped. It created a bit of anxiety for me, but since I’m in health care and was working at the Brigham at the time, I had sort of a pragmatic approach leading up to it. I’m very much a planner. I knew what the normal outcome would be, and I was trying to plan and get ready for that.
Then, when things didn’t go according to plan, that was probably the most difficult thing that him and I will ever go through in our life.
So, we had to figure out what we could do to try to fix this valve.
DR. SUN: Every time you open up the chest, there’s this scar tissue and everything becomes more challenging. The amount of time that surgery takes is longer. And the longer the surgery takes, the more chance for complications as a result of the surgery. That’s mainly because in order to operate in the heart, you actually stop the heart. You take all that blood flow and shunt it through a machine that’s doing all the work of your heart and lungs. Your body does not like being on that machine.
But David’s surgery went great. They put in a larger size mechanical valve and everything went in very well. I saw David on the cardiac surgical floor and everything looked great. Then, he told me had shoulder pain. He started having a hard time breathing. Then, he got sick really, really fast.
DAVE: I strongly remember that shoulder pain. I was gasping for air, so they put me on supplemental oxygen. They tried all sorts of different things and then decided to re-intubate me. That was pretty nerve-wracking.
I got acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). My lungs filled with fluid and I had to have my body oxygenated through ECMO, which is basically a heart-lung machine that you would typically use during an operation. I went into multi-organ failure. I was in a coma.
ABBEY: The doctors told us ECMO would give us the best chance, by giving his lungs time to rest and recover. When you read about ECMO, you realize it’s your last chance. We had exhausted all other options — his lungs had just kind of turned to cement at this point.
They would come in and take X-rays of him every day. Being a radiation therapist, I wanted to see those X-rays. I could see that his lungs weren't clear and that they weren't improving.
I didn't know what I was doing anymore. I was by his side for 12 hours a day. The nurses told me to rest because when he woke up, came home and went to rehab, he was really going to need me then. It's easy for anyone to say, and it's just hard to have imagined not being there.
DR. SUN: I remember talking to Abbey during this time and thinking wow, David has such an amazing support network. There were people camped out in the family member center every night. Everyone was hanging out there, giving his wife support.
ABBEY: We got a call early one morning that said Dave was having a reaction to some things and they needed to take him off ECMO. That didn’t sound great because the machine was keeping him alive, but we said OK. Then, he came back from the kidney failure. They started taking him off sedation and one day his lungs just started clearing. He started breathing a little bit better.
DR. SUN: It was a real turnaround, and it’s really thanks to his body. Most of the things we were doing were just allowing his body time to recover.
ABBEY: When he woke up after being in a coma for a month, I just remember how amazing it was to see his eyes. We were at step one to getting back home.
He had no idea what happened. When they finally took out the breathing tube, I was there with his best friend, and Dave’s voice sounded like Kermit the Frog because he had been intubated for so long. The first thing he said to us: “I would do anything for an orange Gatorade.”
Now, I’m doing great. You'd never know all this happened.
DAVE: My project at Suffolk was actually at the Brigham at the time. When I was recovering in the cardiac unit, I could see the jobsite from where I was on the floor.
I stayed in the hospital for another month. I had to go to rehab since my muscles had atrophied — I had to relearn how to walk, how to hold a pen. But it came back quick. Now, I’m doing great. You’d never know all this happened.
DR. SUN: I’ll never forget David’s case. As doctors, we all know intrinsically how sick people can get, but until it's someone that you've told they should do this surgery and you see them that sick — it changes your perspective. I tell every one of my fellows about David’s case, in terms of how we need to respect surgery and how sick people can get, even when they're looking great going into the surgery.
I remember the first time I saw David in the office afterward. I saw him walking in, and it was one of my happiest days.
DAVE: The Brigham has a special place in my heart, as a place I built at and as a place that saved my life.
I have the best team in the world. When you build in health care, you really see the impact on the community. The health care guys at Suffolk are like family — they supported me and let me slowly get myself back into work.
My biggest takeaway from all of this? To live more in the moment. You never know when something can happen, so I always want to be enjoying things. I'd rather not dwell on the past. I’ve seen the full circle of being part of a project and then being the patient. It reinforced for me that what we do can make an impact and how important health care is.
ABBEY: A lot of people said to me along the way that this was a test early on in our marriage. I couldn’t have seen myself anywhere else. He needed the surgery, so good outcome or the outcome we got, it was something we had to do. We knew we were going to do it together. Dave was doing the hard part.
I watched for weeks and there were nights when I was given not-so-great news and I didn’t think he was going to make it. He somehow did it. I watched it and to this day, no doctor can say why this happened.
It happened so that we could spend our life together. Our story had just started, and we had a lot of life left together. Dave came out of it and if he wants to call it a fight and he won the fight, then so be it. To me, it was a miracle.
David Clegg is a senior safety manager at Suffolk and has been with the company since 2014. After stints as a government contractor at Hanscom Air Force Base and in Afghanistan, he began his Suffolk career at the Brigham and Women’s Hale Building for Transformative Medicine.
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