MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — Back in January, Libby Oxley was a normal 24-year-old, trying to complete her master’s degree at Ball State University.
Originally from South Bend, she was set to graduate in five months with a degree in student affairs and administration in higher education Libby didn’t expect to die any time soon, but then again, most people don’t. She had her whole life ahead of her.
That changed on the night of January 7.
Without any issue, she woke up and got ready for work the next morning. At the time, before the COVID-19 pandemic had set in and campus was still full of faculty and students just starting the spring 2020 semester, she worked at the school’s career center. To get to her office, she had to walk up three flights of stairs.
“It isn’t out of the ordinary to be out of breath after walking upstairs for me, so I turned to my coworker and said, ‘I can’t breathe,’” said Libby, who at the time also had been battling a cold and dry cough since Thanksgiving. “We both kind of laughed.”
Trying to catch her breath, Libby sat for a while, but her struggles wouldn’t ease up. Because of her cold, she already had an appointment at the university’s health center later that day. Letting her supervisor know she was having trouble breathing, she made her way back down the stairs and to her car.
She drove to the health center, took a breathing treatment, and from there, the staff told her she would need a chest x-ray done at another clinic.
Back in her car, she texted her mother, Leasa, who works at an insurance company, to ask if the local clinic was in their insurance network.
It was around 10:45 a.m. when she began to feel off.
“I remember sitting in my car, and I was just like, ‘Something isn’t right. I am not doing okay,’” Libby said. “That’s the last thing that I remember.”
Little did she know, it was the moment that would start a months-long journey of life and death, and a new-found perspective rarely experienced by 24-year-olds.
In South Bend, Leasa Oxley started off her day working from home. She was recovering from what she thought at the time was pneumonia. Later, she would find out it was COVID-19.
A mother of three daughters, Leasa had been texting Libby, her youngest, that morning. She told her daughter not to hesitate going to Ball State’s clinic. Soon, she found out she would need a chest X-ray.
“I typed back, ‘Sounds good, let me know what you find out,’” Leasa said. “I didn’t get a response, but that’s sort of typical. They’re in college and busy, so it didn’t really render right away.”
About an hour later, Leasa received a call from the campus clinic saying they had found her daughter in the parking lot unresponsive and that she was taken to IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital.
She called her husband, Randy, and both took the rest of the day off. It was about a three-hour drive to Muncie.
As a mother, the worst case scenario that she could think of that was her daughter might be unknowingly pregnant and there was a complication.
“I couldn’t think of anything else that it could possibly be, that there was a complication or something, and she doesn’t know she’s pregnant, and something happened,” Leasa said. “That’s all I could think of. What in the world could this possibly be?”
About 40 minutes in to the drive, the couple received a call from the hospital. A staff member told them their daughter wasn’t alone, and that T.J. Brecciaroli, dean of students, and her supervisor hadn’t left Libby’s side.
The phone was passed to Greg Taylor, a doctor in the emergency room. He asked for the couple to pull over so he could explain what happened. Once finished, he asked if they had any questions.
“Dr. Taylor, is my daughter going to die?” Leasa asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
After about 20 minutes, a fellow student found Libby unresponsive in her car. By the time paramedics arrived, she was clinically dead with no pulse. But they weren’t ready to give up on her.
After several broken ribs and a cracked sternum due to chest compressions by paramedics, they were able to find a heartbeat. Once she arrived in the emergency room, Libby coded again. Her team of doctors gave her a 2% chance of living, her mother said.
Dr. Ravi Savani, an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) physician trained in pulmonary and critical care medicine, joined Dr. Taylor. He had seen young patients in the ICU before, but it’s always a shock.
“When you see a young patient, it puts into perspective. We all like to believe our life is ahead of us and we have a long time to be around,” Savani said. “Your mortality comes into perspective when you see someone so young.”
It was found that Libby had a blood clot in her leg that broke off and traveled to her lungs, which caused a pulmonary embolism.
“My lungs lit up like a fireworks display of blood clots,” Libby said.
“These clots start in the deep veins, travel to the right side of the heart and get lodged in the blood vessels in the lungs,” Savani said. “What happens is it strains the heart, and if it’s severe enough, patients can end up in cardiac arrest, which happened to Libby.”
At the hospital, Libby was administered Tissue Plasminogen Activator (TPA), a drug of last resort. It helps break apart the clots so that blood can begin to flow again. From there, she was placed on a ventilator, put into a medically induced coma.
“If that didn’t work, then that was going to be it for me, and my parents were going to have to start planning my funeral,” Libby said. “But, luckily, God looked down and me and said, ‘Not today, sister. We’re going to get through this.’”
Once they arrived, Leasa and Randy were briefed twice, once before seeing Libby and again to talk about her medical history.
“Everything that you see on TV is real,” Leasa said. “She was hooked up and the machine was breathing for her. It was tough.”
They were told about the clots, but there were still many unknowns. How does this happen to an otherwise healthy 24-year-old?
Nurse Christina Casperson was asking herself that same question. A nurse in the ICU, she was the same age as Libby.
“How does someone my age, no health history, nothing really pointing them towards the direction of something like this, how could have this happened?” Casperson said. “I just kept reminding her (Libby) no one expects these things to happen and we have to take one curve ball at a time.”
The next 24-hours would be crucial. Medical staff told the family what numbers to look for on the monitor and what they all meant. They knew they weren’t going to get any sleep.
Progress happened slowly at first, but after a day, Libby’s blood pressure began to climb. Soon, they could lower the dose to help expedite her heart rate.
Around the 36-hour mark, Libby was taken off of blood pressure medication completely and deemed stable, but still critical.
Savani was debating on waking Libby up from the coma. Since she went so long without oxygen, he was concerned about brain damage, and potentially wanted to wait another day.
“I remember talking to her mom about it and saying it’s really a matter of time,” Savani said. “The damage has already been done, it’s if the body is going to recover or is that damage going to be permanent, and you can’t tell that until you give patients time.”
Savani started out rubbing her chest, which was black and blue from compressions.
He said, “Libby, open your eyes.” And she opened her eyes. “Libby, squeeze my hand.” And she squeezed his hand. “Libby, wiggle your toes.” And she wiggled her toes. Just like that, the medicine went back up, and she went back to sleep.
“But, she did it,” Leasa said. “Those were such good signs, that she was there, and we could just get through this.”
Things were looking up once Libby was awake and off the ventilator. She was improving rapidly and able to sit up and talk. But soon, she began experiencing intense headaches. Stroke symptoms, like her headaches, can set in hours or days before an actual stroke.
The full impact of the incident was catching up to her, and due to the lack of oxygen while she went into cardiac arrest in the parking lot, Libby suffered a stroke just a week after she woke up.
The stroke impacted Libby’s occipital lobe, located at the back of the brain. It caused her to lose her eyesight, but she could still see silhouettes and colors. She couldn’t speak or walk, but could eventually write. She lost feeling on the left side of her body, from her mouth to her toes. Memory loss became a challenge as well.
“I always tell people the stroke was the hardest part for me to overcome,” Libby said. “I went from being a 4.0 student to not knowing how to read. It was tough.”
Libby and Casperson grew close after she had the stroke. The mother-daughter aspect was hard for the nurse to watch. She wondered what her mom would do if she was in Libby’s position.
“We’ve had times where we’ve cried and we’ve had time where we’ve had lots of success,” Casperson said. “It was a lot on my heart for sure, but I’m very grateful I was able to help.”
Libby remained at Ball Memorial until February 5. With the help of occupational, speech and physical therapists, she could walk on her own. Speaking and memory loss was still an issue. She was transferred back to South Bend to Beacon Memorial Hospital’s in-patient rehabilitation facility for stroke and brain injury.
“I was a 24-year-old in a room with a bunch of 78-year-old stroke patients, so it was a good time,” Libby said.
Between the two medical facilities, Libby was in the hospital for 45 days. During that time, she couldn’t eat or drink. Leasa had spent every night in the hospital with her, sleeping on a recliner. It wasn’t comfortable, but she couldn’t leave her daughter.
“She never once took any kind of self-pity. There were questions as to why this happened to her, but there was never, ‘Why me? Why not somebody else?’” Leasa said. “That’s not how Libby thinks. Libby thinks that I’m going to get through this and I’m going to make this work.”
“I think Ball Memorial was just very helpful in getting me back to life. We didn’t know what it was going to be like,” Libby said. “My family thought I wasn’t… for a while they weren’t sure if I was going to bounce back, as well as I did or at all.”
But Libby was resilient, and she wasn’t going to let it ruin anything for her.
Sometimes, when people see how well Libby recovered, they might say something like, “Wow, it must have not been that bad.”
But there were days where she didn’t want to try, days where getting up wasn’t worth it, days where she just cried.
While Libby was the one to go through this, she said her family are the ones who lived it. She and her mother were already close, but this brought them closer, and the support from her sisters and father also kept her spirits up.
“I always say you don’t really know the impact you have on people until after you die,” Libby said. “Like, a lot of people don’t get to see that until it’s like their funeral, and they’re looking down from Heaven and seeing all the people who are at their funeral that they impacted.”
But it was also her own personal perseverance that got her through. After all, she only had one semester left of her master’s program. It was the first thing she did by herself and for herself, and she was going to graduate.
Libby’s professors were accommodating, and gave her a year to complete the work. Like she was back in high school, she sat in her room in South Bend, knocking out her assignments one-by-one. Just like everyone else, graduate on May 2.
Most people don’t get to return to the place where they died. Libby hadn’t planned on it either, but her feet just sort of led her there while on a walk around campus on May 22.
She remembered exactly where it was, the spot right before the light post and before the tree. Standing there made her emotional.
“I just stood there and let it all out right then and there,” Libby said. “For me, that was very cleansing moment. I was angry, I was sad, I was scared.”
No one truly knows why that happened to her or how she overcame it. She was healthy, and to this day, there’s not an exact answer.
When Libby and her mother got back home, they both suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Neither of them could sleep, afraid that she would have another stroke in the middle of the night.
“It’s hard because, I’ve read the books, I’ve seen it in lifetime movies. You have a near-death experience, and it becomes this eye-opening thing,” Leasa said. “The part that doesn’t get addressed with that, dealing with the post traumatic stress. That’s real.”
For a long time, Libby didn’t label herself a stroke survivor or a death survivor. While the clich saying is, “Don’t let experiences define you,” she’s doing the exact opposite.
“Now, I am those things. I’ve let myself feel those things,” Libby said. “By letting myself define myself by what happened to me, I think that in itself is me owning it and processing it in a way that is more powerful to me than it ever was before.”
Source: The Star Press