What was supposed to be a celebratory ‘last day of school’ trip to the river soon turned into a nightmare for 16-year old Shelby and her family. Shelby’s brother and her friends had planned a trip to the Comal River in their hometown of New Braunfels, Texas. Although Shelby wasn’t feeling her best, she decided to join them. In the middle of her seemingly perfect day, Shelby slipped on a rock. When she struggled to bring herself to the surface of the water, she knew something was wrong.
“It felt as if something was sitting on my chest and squeezing my heart,” said Shelby. “I was a pretty healthy kid, but I knew I needed help.”
Shelby’s brother called their mom, Michele, to pick her up to take her home. By the time their mom arrived, Shelby needed medical attention. As friends carried Shelby to the car, Michele knew in that moment that this was bigger than she could have imagined. Michele and Shelby arrived at their family doctor’s office and were seen right away. Shelby was an active and athletic teenager with no prior injuries or illnesses. After several abnormal electrocardiogram (EKG) readings, her physician decided to call an ambulance to transfer Shelby to CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital – New Braunfels.
When Shelby arrived at the hospital, she was conscious but declining rapidly. Shelby’s abnormal heart rhythms were a mystery. As doctors scrambled to find a solution, Shelby’s oxygen levels dropped. She was soon placed into a medically-induced coma and airlifted to The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio for further evaluation.
“After Shelby’s doctors told me she was being transferred, I knew The Children’s Hospital would be the best place for her,” said Michele. “When we landed, I was amazed — that was the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone move.”
During the flight from New Braunfels to San Antonio, Shelby coded four separate times. Upon arrival at The Children’s Hospital, Shelby’s doctors immediately placed her onto an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine for life-saving support. ECMO is a type of artificial life support that pumps and oxygenates the blood outside of the body, allowing the patient’s heart and lungs to rest.
While Shelby remained in a state of comatose, doctors learned that two stage four neuroendocrine tumors behind Shelby’s kidneys were the cause of her falling ill. They immediately began to make a surgical plan. In the blink of an eye, while still on life support, a blood clot formed behind Shelby’s left kneecap and doctors acted swiftly to save her life. After an 18-hour surgery, doctors were able to successfully break down and dislodge the clot, but the lasting damage it had left behind was unclear.
Dr. Elizabeth Magnabosco, pediatric orthopedic surgery specialist at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, sat down with Michele and Shelby’s dad, Brian, to talk through the next steps. Dr. Magnabosco revealed that in order to save Shelby’s life, more drastic measures were to be taken: Shelby’s leg needed to be amputated. Surgeons successfully removed the cancerous tumors, as well as Shelby’s left leg. Thus began Shelby’s long road to recovery – and she had yet to wake to find out the news.
Shelby would soon learn her entire life had been flipped on its side in a matter of weeks. As she opened her eyes, she found her mom, grandmother, and several doctors at her bedside. “I felt lost. I thought I had only been asleep for one or two days. I had no idea I had been in a coma for 17 days,” said Shelby.
Michele recalls it taking a few days for Shelby to regain full consciousness, delaying her parents from being able to explain to Shelby what had transpired while she was in the coma. Seventeen days after Shelby walked into the river, she not only lost her leg, but she had somehow been diagnosed with cancer in the same time frame.
“I remember being angry,” recalls Shelby. “I couldn’t understand how a seemingly normal and healthy kid could have cancer and not even know it.”
Shelby remained at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio for the next 45 days undergoing additional tests to ensure she was out of the woods.
“If it had not been for the nurses, doctors, Child Life specialists, physical, speech, and occupational therapists who helped me through this, I’m not sure where I would be. They helped me understand that yes, this happened, but I am still here, and I get to live,” said Shelby.
Shelby was discharged from the hospital right before her 17th birthday and she had one goal in mind: to be able to walk the stage at her high school graduation. Not only did Shelby succeed, but she continues to give back to the community that raised her up by raising funds to gift back to The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.
“Seeing Shelby’s strength and determination, she’s living proof that miracles happen,” added Michele. “It’s because of the people at this hospital that I still have my child.”