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A Totally Unexpected Cardiac Emergency

Allison Milk Rowe
Allison Milk-Rowe

Pharmacy tech Allison Milk-Rowe is a 45-year old young and healthy mom, busy keeping up with her two boys. So when she started throwing up before Thanksgiving, she just assumed she had a stomach virus.

“But then I woke up in the night,” she recalled “my stomach was swollen and I was in severe pain. I had to call 9-1-1 and go to the emergency department.”

“I was treated for cellulitis because my stomach and side were swollen and red. But then they did a cardiac work-up and saw something – a shadow.”

The Jackson Township resident was transferred to another hospital with cardiac care specialists, where a mass by her heart was discovered. A biopsy showed it wasn’t cancerous, but the mass was pressing on her heart causing cardiac issues. As well, her legs were now swelling also, and she couldn’t walk.

“The hospital where I was decided they didn’t want to risk doing surgery,” she said “so I went to Deborah. Dr. Burns [surgeon Paul Burns, MD, Deborah’s Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery] did some testing, and found a cyst behind the right side of my heart. The cyst and a thickening of the pericardia – the sack of tissue that surrounds the heart — were causing me right-sided heart failure. This was totally unexpected. It came out of left field.”

Allison said she was devastated, especially since another hospital had said “no” to taking on her case.

“But Dr. Burns looked at me and said ‘I can do this. You’ll be fine.’”

Allison underwent open heart surgery, and Dr. Burns went in and removed the thickened lining around the heart and the cyst. “Usually these pericardial cysts are benign and cause no symptoms in patients, but sometimes, in cases like Allison they can interfere with normal cardiac functioning,” he said.

“I am so thankful that Dr. Burns did the surgery. I believe he saved my life. But I had a tough recovery.”

Allison said that after surgery it took her weeks to build back her strength and regain her ability to walk. Her thankfulness to Deborah for saving her life continued as the nursing staff became her number one cheerleaders in her recovery.

“The whole time I was in the ICU the nurses kept me going, especially Debbie [Debbie Schmalbach, RN, on 4Lesser. I was tearful. I was emotional. I had never been away from my kids before. Especially around Christmas, I missed my kids so much, but the staff was so compassionate. They constantly kept telling me ‘you are going to get through this.’ They were always so positive.”

Allison said that her whole community rallied around during her long and difficult recovery. “My company held my job for me. My mom and dad — Walter and Irene — were there for boys, and both their school and my dad’s employer sent Christmas presents for my sons, as well as helping out with grocery gift cards. And I could never have done this without my best friend Laura and my brother Michael standing by me the whole time.”

And finally the day came when Allison walked again. “I was off my oxygen and the therapist told me to move my legs. I started marching in place. Debbie couldn’t believe it and when I started walking she began recording it. I walked 25 feet! I started beaming. Debbie got it all on video. When I walked the whole team started tearing up, they were so happy for me. I had prayed for some time before that moment. I believe my faith in God and the skill of Dr. Burns is why I am here today. On January 7th, I went to rehab, and from then on my progress was quick. I went back to work in March.”

For Debbie, this is the best part of working at Deborah. “It makes my job rewarding and inspiring when our patients recover and are able to return to their families and their life. It was an absolute pleasure to take care of Allison.”

“I am 100% better now. Everything is great. Dr. Burns is phenomenal. I am forever thankful that to him, making it possible that I can be with my kids to see them grow up.”

Back to her favorite outdoors activities — gardening and walking to the park — Allison remains humbled by her experience.

“Not only did Dr. Burns save my life, but Debbie kept me going. She is an angel. The whole team at Deborah — who said ‘yes’ when other hospitals said ‘no’ — will always make Deborah have a special place in my heart.”

“I just want people to know that in the midst of the pandemic and all the craziness of this world that God still heals and that good people still do exist.”

Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, NJ is an 89-bed teaching hospital that specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, research, and treatment of heart, lung, and vascular diseases. Founded in 1922, Deborah has been a regional and nationally recognized leader throughout its 100-year history, during which time it has healed 2.3 million patients from every corner of the United States and 87 countries in the world. From performing the first open heart surgeries (adult and pediatric) in New Jersey, to running one of the highest volume left-ventricular assist device (LVAD) implant programs in the region, Deborah has stood at the forefront of medical innovation, all while never wavering from its founding mission “there is no price on life.” Deborah is consistently recognized as a leader in patient care from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, ranked among the top hospitals in New Jersey for patient satisfaction; holds a top-tier Society of Thoracic Surgeons rating which places Deborah among the best cardiac surgery programs in the country; and is designated a national Top Teaching Hospital by The Leapfrog Group. Deborah is an Alliance member of the Cleveland Clinic Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute. 

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