A Heart To Live and the Strength to Heal

Group fitness instructor found the strength to heal

Each day is a gift.  No one is a bigger believer in this motto than Angie Jorgensen of Elkhorn.  Grateful for her husband, her children, her family, and her community, she is thankful to be alive. As an active runner and group fitness instructor, Angie has always been aware of her health and well-being; so when she woke up on the morning of December 7, 2012 not feeling well, she figured it was maybe the flu. Little did she know this day would be the beginning of her struggle to survive a rare condition.

Angie has been a fitness instructor for more than 20 years and has enjoyed her time leading Zumba/Dance Jam for over six years at Lifetime Fitness. “I love the classes because they are sweaty, fat-burning dance parties,” she said. “Your hour workout flies by. What’s not to love?” She also enjoys her full-time position as a sales director with Mary Kay. She and her husband Jon were high school sweethearts, but their lives took different paths after graduation. “We met back up at a 25-year high school reunion and made a pact to be friends for life. We were married a year later.” The couple has four children: Alexis, Garrett, Josh and Justin.

Just five years into their marriage, Jon’s love for Angie had him fighting for her heart. “I woke up on December 7th and felt really lousy,” said Angie. “It quickly went from feeling like I was coming down with the flu to eventually fighting to breathe.” Jon was, by chance, at home after canceling a trip. “She said ‘help me’ and she has never said that before,” he said. The couple rushed to the emergency room at Lakeside Hospital, where the staff quickly recognized Angie’s critical state. “I remember getting there, sitting in the wheel chair and barely being able to stay awake,” said Angie. “My blood pressure was extremely high. The last thing I remember is grabbing Jon’s hand. I said ‘through thick or thin’ and then I woke up from a coma a week later.”

Thinking about the details of that week still brings Jon to tears. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, he was told they needed to get Angie to the Cardiac Cath Lab. “Thirty minutes or maybe an hour went by and the doctor came out and said that things had taken a turn for the worse. They had been giving Angie CPR for the last 15-20 minutes,” recalls Jon.  As the medical staff worked to bring his wife back to life, Jon was told that if they stabilized her, she would be LifeFlighted to the University of Nebraska Medical Center. At this point, two of their children and other family members had joined Jon in the waiting room. In twos, Angie’s family went in to say their goodbyes – not knowing if she would survive the trip. “Our daughter Alexis told my mom not to worry, that she saw an angel by my side,” said Angie.

Angie arrived at UNMC with her heart functioning at only 5 percent. She was immediately hooked up to Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO), a treatment in which a machine provides oxygen to patients whose heart and lungs cannot function on their own. The doctors’ goal at this point was to get Angie’s heart strong enough to withstand a heart transplant, if needed, because her condition was still unknown. In order to keep Angie stable, she was put into an induced coma.

After several days, Angie’s heart began to function and doctors knew then that a heart transplant would not be needed; although they were still puzzled by what had caused all of this. They took her off the ECMO machine, but once again, her blood pressure quickly escalated. After many tests and scans, an MRI showed that Angie had a tumor on an enlarged adrenal gland.  With the help of a specialist in Maryland, she was diagnosed with having a pheochromocytoma, a rare tumor of adrenal gland tissue. The tumor had caused a massive overproduction of adrenaline, which is what caused the life-threatening hypertension and cardiac arrest. “I had never had high blood pressure,” said Angie. “All I know is that I was hanging by a thread.”

After a terrifying week, Angie woke from the coma feeling confused and unaware of all that her body had withstood. “I thought people were playing a bad joke,” she said. “I could not walk or use my hands; I didn’t know who the President was…I was kind of a hot mess, basically.” On top of everything, she learned that she had suffered at least two strokes and now had to overcome pneumonia, which was especially painful due to a broken sternum and ribs caused by CPR. She also was hooked up to a dialysis machine.

Spirits were lifted when Angie was transferred to the Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln on December 21, 2012. “I hit a point where I just missed my kids,” she said. “I had to wear a defibrillator vest in case I went into cardiac arrest, and they agreed to let Jon drive me there. Day by day, things started to get better.” A full schedule of physical and speech therapy kept Angie busy, and on Christmas Eve her kidneys were fully functional. “They released me a few days after Christmas and I came home to lots of rehabilitation. The whole goal was to get me strong enough for surgery on March 5. I was a little nervous…they removed my adrenal gland along with the tumor.”

Throughout her journey back to health, Angie’s loved ones, friends, co-workers, and community gathered together on Caring Bridge. “It’s a website that one of our good friends set up so that I could post updates on Angie’s health,” said Jon. “Day two in the hospital was when it was started.” The support didn’t stop there: several prayer vigils were held in Angie’s honor, including vigils at the Jorgensen’s church and at Lifetime Fitness. Mary Kay colleagues stepped in and took care of Angie’s clients.  After her recovery, Lifetime planned a fundraiser celebrating her triumphant return with a Dance-A-Thon, led by Angie. She has spent the last year getting her groove back and is again leading her Lifetime classes. “I remember it being kind of a challenge to get back into the swing of things,” said Angie. “But everyone was supportive and great. One of my hospital nurses was actually in one of my Zumba classes.”

The gratitude Angie feels is immense. “Here we are a year later, and I can’t thank everyone enough, especially Jon,” said Angie. “He was my rock and never left my side…it’s amazing what he did. I cannot express how much I appreciate everything that was done for me. Life is a gift – be fabulous every day.”

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