Dixon credits local doctor for saving her life

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Pat Dixon’s heart has given her trouble for four decades.

Valve replacements, hundreds of vials of pills and dozens of visits to doctors have been a part of her regimen while she worked as the ranger for Chickasaw Park.

Because of her litany of heart ailments, Dixon strongly supports the American Heart Association and is helping the Marengo County unit of AHA prepare for its annual fundraiser, the Cardiac Arrest on June 27. She has been a heart volunteer since 1963.

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Dixon’s heart problems came close to ending &045; permanently &045; last August 11, the busiest day of the year at the park with hundreds of people gathered for the Alabama Alumni reunion.

For years she had experienced pain in her legs and hips as she walked. In spite of sophisticated tests, nothing showed up to tell doctors what was wrong. That day at the park she felt "excruciating pain." Trying to ignore the agony, she continued making sure park visitors had a good time.

But that evening she couldn’t catch her breath when she tried to lie down. Fortunately her daughter-in-law was visiting and called the ambulance that whisked her to Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Ronnie Chu had duty that night, and Dixon credits him with saving her life. "I don’t believe I would have made it if he hadn’t been on duty," she said.

He recognized immediately that she had "too much fluid overload in her lungs and legs." Initial efforts to reduce the fluid worked for a short while, but soon her body became distressed again.

During all this time Dixon was awake and talking with the doctors, but she has absolutely no memory of it. The last thing she recalls is being wheeled down the hall and told she was going to have x-rays taken.

Nothing else registered until she became aware of her surroundings two weeks later at Medical Center East in Birmingham.

She missed having a breathing tube inserted. She missed her trip on a Life Flight jet to Birmingham. She missed knowing about the surgery she went through and her initial days in the intensive care unit. But she doesn’t miss going through the emotional roller-coaster such events would have caused.

Dixon’s first brush with heart surgery came in 1962, when she was 27. Her mitral valve had been scarred from childhood rheumatic fever and required a replacement.

Chu said he called the Birmingham hospital everyday to keep track of Dixon. "We just care about our patients," he said.

Dixon said she was "so critically ill that I required specialty care in every category. Each (specialist) tells me that he did not expect me to make it."

Her surgery in Birmingham repaired the tricuspid and replaced another value she had received in 1984. The valve was not pumping because it had hardened, which doctors who treated her had never seen before. The faulty valve was replaced with a mechanical one.

Dixon was in the hospital on her birthday when she had her first surgery in 1962. This time the surgery was done on her birthday, August 20.

The first thing Dixon remembers was being asked if she knew where she was. For some reason, movement and odors around her reminded her of a time in her past, and she answered “Thomasville.”

After recovery and rehabilitation, Dixon left the hospital September 7 to stay with her son in the Boaz area for two months. The hospital there performed frequent blood work, and she went back often to visit her doctors in Birmingham.

But when she received her final release, she returned to Linden and to her job with the Alabama Park Service.

She is still limited to lifting no more than 10 pounds, and she totes with her a tray filled with her week’s worth of medication.

Her problems aren’t over. Three months after surgery Dixon began losing her hair, and her signature "upsweep" is a thing of the past. She is not hesitant to let people know she wears "store bought" hair.

Chu said the hair loss can stem from the stress her body went through, and her other doctors believe the loss came from her entire system shutting down.

Dixon has high praise for the Demopolis hospital and especially for Dr. Chu.

When she returned to Linden, she asked him to be her local physician.

She brings with her a long list of medical problems in addition to her heart, such as diabetes. "I wouldn’t wish me on anyone," she joked.

Her close brush with death led Dixon to make some necessary adjustments. She now carries with her in a separate wallet the list of the medications she takes and their dosage, her insurance cards and hospital medical cards, doctors’ names and numbers and all the other information necessary for emergency medical personnel to use.

I’m here as a result of people’s personal prayer," she continued. "I really believe the reason I survived was to help my fellow men."