The Most Miraculous Medical Recoveries of 2017

Surely, you can't survive with only half a skull. Or can you? We've got the miracles behind these amazing stories, plus six more that are certain to blow your mind. This is what today's medicine (and maybe a few angels) can accomplish.

The first 23-week preemie to survive in more than a decade

Most-Miraculous-Medical-Recoveries-of-2017Courtesy Jennifer Fresneda
A few years ago, we wrote of the miraculous survival of a baby born at 26 weeks. This year we have Samuel Rodriguez, born in April at just 23 weeks and three days, the result of a spontaneous placental abruption (separation of the placenta from the uterus). All Samuel's mom, Jennifer Fresneda of Tioga Texas, remembers is waking up to labor pains and rushing to the hospital (Medical City Plano), where she learned her baby's sole chance of survival was emergency C-section (these are the myths and facts about C-sections you should know about). Sam actually took a breath upon emerging, but doctors immediately intubated and rushed him to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). When Jennifer and her husband were finally allowed to see their baby, Jennifer nearly collapsed from the shock. "He was the tiniest thing, hooked up to all these wires. I was frightened and powerless."

Samuel spent four months in NICU, during which he had two surgeries, including surgery to correct a heart abnormality. On August 9, the day before his actual due date, Samuel was discharged from the hospital, a healthy baby boy, albeit with an apnea monitor and supplemental oxygen. "I didn't even know babies so small could survive," Jennifer marvels.

The boy who survived Leukemia three times in 10 years

Most-Miraculous-Medical-Recoveries-of-2017Courtesy The St. Baldricks Foundation
Zach Swart was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) at age 6. Although ALL is generally highly treatable, Zach's version played hardball. Zach's first treatment consisted of more than three years of chemo. Two years later, the cancer returned. After another two years of treatment, Zach was deemed cancer-free. Then last November, when Zach was 15, the cancer came back. This time, chemo was just the pre-game—to put Zach into remission in preparation for a bone marrow transplant (BMT). But three months later, after nearly dying from the side effects, Zach still wasn't in remission.

It seemed he was out of options when along came the miracle.

Dr. Kevin Curran at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City introduced Zach and his family to "CAR-T cell treatment," which Dr. Curran developed through a research grant from St. Baldrick's Foundation. It put Zach into complete remission in a matter of weeks. Within a month he received his BMT (from his brother, Ben). He's getting stronger by the day.

"I was initially afraid about CAR-T's side effects," Zach tells Reader's Digest. "But then I didn't have any at all. I was so lucky, and it feels so good not to be sick anymore and to be home and see my friends. I'm determined to leave cancer far behind me."

"Every day I see Zach smile, laugh, and just be a kid, it is truly a miracle," his mom says.

Here's what cancer patients wish you knew.

The bladder cancer that saved a man's heart

Most-Miraculous-Medical-Recoveries-of-2017Courtesy David Shusterman MD urologist NYC
You might not consider a cancer diagnosis as a miracle, but then you probably haven't talked to David Shusterman, MD, a urologist who practices in New York City and Forest Hills, Queens. Dr. Schusterman had a patient this year whose life was actually saved because of his cancer diagnosis (for privacy reasons, Dr. Schusterman can't disclose the name of the patient). Here's what happened:

Before any surgery, it's protocol for a patient to get a pre-surgical workup, including blood tests and an EKG. In fact, before initiating any cancer treatment, the patient's general health should be assessed. In this case, Dr. Schusterman explains, "We had a patient with bladder cancer, but when we checked his heart, we found a terrible heart condition." The heart condition was so life-threatening that the patient was actually at risk of sudden death. Literally, as Dr. Schusterman told Reader's Digest, "he was about to die of a heart attack." Here's what you should know about heart attacks—before you have one.

Because of the patient's cancer diagnosis, his treatable heart condition was discovered in time. "He survived and was able to get his bladder tumor cured as well," and in so doing, "beat two conditions that almost caused his death."

An internal tourniquet saves a man who was split wide open

Most-Miraculous-Medical-Recoveries-of-2017Courtesy Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute
By all accounts, Michael Cassidy should not be alive today. In March, he was thrown from his motorcycle, face-forward into a fire hydrant. The impact broke his pelvis wide open—literally, cracking him open like a book. It's what Michelle McNutt, MD, chief of trauma at Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute says is known as an "open book fracture."

When Cassidy arrived at the trauma center, Dr. McNutt had to make a split-second decision to utilize what's called the REBOA (Resuscitative Endovascular Balloon Occlusion of the Aorta ) technique, which involves placing a flexible catheter into the femoral artery (located in the thigh), maneuvering it all the way up into the aorta (the main artery of the human body) and inflating a balloon at the end of the catheter. What this does is stop the blood flow beyond the balloon, which improves the person's blood pressure and provides a sort of "bridge" to getting a severely injured patient into the operating room in time.

Another way of thinking about the REBOA is as an "internal tourniquet." It's revolutionary and the key to why Cassidy is alive today, according to Laura Moore, MD, FACS, the Medical Director of the Shock Trauma ICU at MHRDTI. Cassidy was also lucky to have been where he was when the accident happened, or he might not have had access to REBOA. Here are some other amazing true stories about luck.

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She's alive and well, though half her skull is gone

Most-Miraculous-Medical-Recoveries-of-2017Courtesy Jennifer Beaver
This past June, Jennifer Beaver fell off a golf cart and landed on her head, leading to such a massive brain bleed that doctors had no choice but to remove half her skull to alleviate pressure. To say her prognosis was grim is an understatement. Colin Looney, MD, the orthopedic surgeon who helped repair Jen's broken limbs, was also a friend of Jen and her husband, Bill. "I had operated on friends and neighbors before, but this would be my first time operating on a friend who was dying," he recalls. "Talking to Bill shortly after, I tried to sound positive, but I'd seen so few patients survive massive brain trauma that I'm sure it all showed on my face."

"So many things were going through my head," Bill recalls. "One minute we're having the best day. The next, all the doctors can say is they'll do their best. I just wanted to hold her hand and make it better. I couldn't stand to think she'd never come home again."

But she did go home again. After being brought out of a medically induced coma (here's what it's like to be in a coma, from real-life survivors), Jen steadily improved. "Whenever I examined her," Dr. Looney tells Reader's Digest, "I'd get emotional seeing how she'd improved beyond anyone's hopes or expectations."

Jen, who's back at work and suffers no significant deficits, knows she's a "walking miracle," and she'll be forever grateful to her doctors, including neurosurgeon Lola Chambless, MD.


She wasn't supposed to live, let alone stand or dance again
Most-Miraculous-Medical-Recoveries-of-2017courtesy Memorial Hermann Health System

Katie Vacek was never your typical high school senior: a class officer, sixth in her graduating class, in her school band, a varsity cheerleader, and if that isn't enough, a member of the school's powerlifting team. She'd planned to attend Texas State University in the fall until her future took a tragic detour in February, when she fell 20 feet from a tree she was climbing while on a nature walk with friends and family. She landed face down, but miraculously enough, remained conscious. Turning over, however, she realized she couldn't feel her legs. Air-lifted to Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute, Katie was found to have a fractured sternum, multiple broken ribs, a partially collapsed lung, and a broken spine. Following a seven-hour surgery to fuse her spine, she was told she might not walk again.

But for Katie, it wasn't enough just to have survived. Even if she'd never walk again, she was determined to stand beside and dance with her boyfriend at prom. That's what she told her physical therapy team at TIRR Memorial Hermann, which came up with a plan and worked on their own time to fashion a harness for Katie and her boyfriend to wear together. A few weeks later, Katie not only stood and danced beside her boyfriend at prom, the two were voted Prom King and Queen.

He's alive because of his angels... and an AED

Most-Miraculous-Medical-Recoveries-of-2017Courtesy Memorial Hermann Southwest HospitalRand Mintzer
In January, attorney Rand Mintzer, 57, set out to complete his 25th marathon and his 11th Houston Marathon—but it didn't go exactly as planned. "I wasn't feeling great. I was struggling to keep up my pace, but I had heartburn and nausea. I even vomited on the sidelines," Mintzer recalls. "Then I began feeling lightheaded, and my vision started to blur." At mile 15, he collapsed. He was in full cardiac arrest. Luckily, six spectators (aka, Rand's "angels," as he calls them) who were trained in CPR, ran to his aid. What's more, he had collapsed right near an assisted-living facility that had an AED (a heart defibrillation device that saves lives). When the paramedics arrived, they transported Rand to Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Southwest, where Dr. Peter Chang placed a stent to address a severe arterial blockage.

Today, it's Mintzer's mission to encourage everyone to learn the miracle of CPR. "I will keep working to make sure that everyone who crosses my path knows CPR, so perhaps that percentage of survival will increase and someone else gets to go home to their loved ones."

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