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"Walking Miracle" in Tucson, AZ


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  • "Walking Miracle" in Tucson, AZ

    This young girl had undiagnosed HCM...I have reached out to her family in hopes they will find the HCMA.

    Published: 03.24.2005

    She's a walking miracle
    Remarkable recovery followed Flowing Wells student's near-fatal heart ordeal
    By Shelley Shelton

    By all accounts, Jackie Backus is a living miracle. For the most part, the 14-year-old Flowing Wells High School freshman is like any other teenager: blond, smiley, loving yet antagonistic with her 10-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother. She's a little bit sneaky with her parents. Just sneaky enough, in fact, that it might have saved her life.

    On Tuesday, Feb. 8, Jackie "missed the bus" - she makes the quote marks with her fingers in the air as she says the phrase before admitting she just didn't want to take the bus that day - so her father drove her to school.

    He let her out of the car across the street from Flowing Wells High School, near the crosswalk.

    A pulmonary nurse watched Jackie as she crossed. The woman later told the family her gaze was drawn to Jackie because she emanated an unusual glow. The nurse watched her, trying to determine what was causing it.

    About the time Jackie reached the school marquee, she collapsed. The nurse rushed over to help.

    So began a chain of events that was coincidental at worst, miraculous at best.

    An ambulance was on the scene within five minutes, whisking Jackie away to Tucson Heart Hospital.

    "It was one of the most stressful cases I've ever had. I'll remember it for the rest of my life - I'm sure," said Tammy Flores, a 10-year veteran of emergency room nursing who took care of Jackie when she came in.

    Cardiologist Lionel Faitelson was off-duty but happened to be in a hospital lounge when an operator called for a cardiologist over the loudspeaker, he said, "with a sort of terror in her voice."

    When Faitelson got to the emergency room, the ER physician already had been working to stabilize Jackie for nearly a half-hour, he said.

    "Usually the way it goes is, they settle down pretty quickly or else the patient doesn't survive," he said. That wasn't happening now. Jackie wasn't stabilized, but she wasn't gone yet, either.

    She was, however, turning purple, Flores said.

    "At that point, I didn't know whether she was going to live or die," Faitelson said.

    Still unsure what was causing the problem, he decided to let Jackie's parents, Ronda and Scott, into the room so they would have a chance to see her in case she didn't survive.

    The elder Backuses are both teachers with a strong religious faith. Ronda Backus teaches at Flowing Wells Unified School District's Centennial Elementary, not far from Jackie's high school. Scott Backus teaches at Coronado K-8 School in the Amphitheater Public Schools district and also serves as a youth pastor.

    At the time, they had no idea they were being allowed in to say goodbye, Ronda Backus said.

    Rather, she went to Jackie's head and began to pray. Scott Backus stayed at Jackie's feet and rubbed them while he read from the Bible.

    At that precise moment, Flores said, the color began to come back into Jackie's skin.

    "I will always remember how it felt to see her face go from blue to normal," said the nurse, who describes herself as "not particularly religious."

    "It's a miracle. There's no other - it's just a miracle," she said. She considers herself lucky that she saw it. "We hardly ever get a chance to be part of a miracle like that."

    Soon after, the medical staff found the cause of Jackie's collapse: She suffers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle in the lower chambers, Faitelson said.

    The thickening results in abnormal heart rhythms and can disrupt the way a heart pumps, making each heartbeat less effective, he said.

    It's not very common, and it's hard to tell how many people have it because it normally isn't diagnosed until a teen or young adult dies suddenly, Faitelson said.

    After Jackie was at Tucson Heart Hospital for about six hours, said her mother, she was stable enough to be flown to University Medical Center, where she would lie in bed for another three weeks.

    Flores said it's uncommon for patients to be flown from Tucson Heart Hospital. Yet when Jackie needed it, a flight crew just happened to be there already, dropping off another patient, she said.

    By the time she left for UMC, Jackie had been jolted with electricity 23 times. Surgery still lay ahead.

    Doctors at UMC implanted a metal defibrillator plate in her chest to detect when something goes wrong with her heart and zap its rhythm back to normal, though to date it hasn't had to kick in yet.

    "At first I was on just absolutely every machine you can imagine," she said, though she remembers none of it.

    Jackie has lost about a week of memory surrounding her collapse, Ronda Backus said.

    "When I woke up, I was confused by all the wires," Jackie said.

    After three weeks of lying in bed, Jackie's muscles had atrophied - decreased in mass - making it hard for her to walk. She's been recuperating at home since the ordeal and plans to return to school next week, when her classmates return from spring break. In the meantime, she's had a homebound tutor so she doesn't fall behind in her schoolwork.

    As her legs have strengthened, she's tentatively taken excursions away from home. She went to church last weekend to thank people for their outpouring of support for her family. She went to her school's talent show recently. On Monday, she got to sleep over at a friend's house - her first significant social outing since she left the hospital.

    She won't get to go on her church's mission trip to Africa this summer as she had planned, but she will go on future trips, she said.

    "If God has got me through the worst part, I don't have anything to be afraid of," she said.

    Faitelson said Jackie can live indefinitely with the defibrillator, though the batteries will need to be changed every five to eight years.

    Her particular heart device has been in use for about 15 years but was approved for use with Jackie's condition only about two years ago, he said.

    "She's a very lucky girl."

    ● Contact reporter Shelley Shelton at 434-4078 or [email protected].


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