Blood donation saves Grand Forks mother's lifeAlexander Azenkeng knows what death looks like. “In Cameroon, I saw every sign of people passing,” said Alex, who immigrated to the United States in 2001 to study at UND. He saw those signs in his wife the day she gave birth to their fourth child at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks and in the days that followed.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Alexander Azenkeng knows what death looks like.
“In Cameroon, I saw every sign of people passing,” said Alex, who immigrated to the United States in 2001 to study at UND.
He saw those signs in his wife the day she gave birth to their fourth child at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks and in the days that followed.
The morning of Jan. 4, he and Florence arrived at Altru’s Family Birthing Center to induce the birth of their baby after what had been a normal, uneventful pregnancy with regular prenatal care. The baby girl was a week overdue.
This pregnancy had been “the best experience she had, of the four kids,” Alex said.
With only two pushes, Alexis was born, but minutes later things began to go terribly wrong. Although the baby was fine, Florence wasn’t recovering. Her uterus was not contracting properly and there was a lot of bleeding.
“After 20 minutes, she was just out, non-responsive; her blood pressure dropped to 50,” he said. “She was just gone.”
The rapid response team and critical care physicians flew into action, trying to control the bleeding, but nothing worked.
“We had no idea what was happening,” Alex said.
Florence was losing blood faster than it could be transfused into her body through the IV. At one point, nurses were squeezing the bags of blood into her as fast as it could go.
She was rushed to surgery.
“When she left the labor room, I didn’t believe she would come back from surgery,” Alex said.
‘Do whatever it takes’
She went into surgery without anesthesia — no time to administer it — yet she didn’t hear or feel anything, Alex said. “That tells me that she was basically gone.”
In surgery, a uterine rupture was discovered. Alex had to decide immediately on a hysterectomy, surgical removal of the uterus.
“I made the decision almost without thinking. I said, ‘go ahead, do whatever it takes,’” he recalled.
Florence had received a large amount of blood. Because blood is refrigerated — and there was no time to let it warm up — her organs were at risk for hypothermia.
Surgery was halted, and the focus turned to warming and stabilizing her before operating further. Her abdomen was left open and pressure-packed to prevent infection and minimize bleeding.
The next day, physicians determined she was stable enough to return to surgery.
“There was a lot of panicking, a lot of rush,” Alex said.
Surgeons found another major blood vessel that was still bleeding, according to an email from Altru. After repairing it, they retraced their steps from the initial surgery to make sure they hadn’t missed anything or hurt any organs.
By this time, Florence was hooked up to several machines, including those designed to assist breathing and heart function, Alex said. “All that was done externally for her.”
After the second surgery, examination of the uterus determined it had ruptured because of a fibroid, a non-cancerous growth that had been growing inside the uterus behind the baby but not observable on ultrasound.
As the baby grew, she overwhelmed the fibroid, causing it to shrink. The fibroid had developed scar tissue, the Altru email said, and it’s suspected that the scar tissue tore, causing the uterus to rupture, which led to profuse bleeding.
Alex said he was told that in similar cases that most physicians have seen, the patient — or the baby — didn’t make it.
Florence said she doesn’t like to think about that. “I get too emotional.”
‘She should have died’
She spent 17 days in Altru Hospital. More than 80 physicians and nurses provided care.
In the ordeal, nearly her entire blood supply had to be replaced. She went through 56 units of blood, 23 units of red blood cells and 33 units of other blood products, said Mark Jensen, donor resource coordinator at the Dak-Minn Blood Bank. She received just over two gallons of red blood cells.
Her condition was so dire, “she should have died,” Jensen said.
“It’s safe to say that 56 different people donated life-saving blood and blood products to Florence.”
Having an adequate blood supply on hand was crucial.
“As rapidly as she was bleeding, they needed those blood products here,” said Deb Schue, supervisor at the Dak-Minn Blood Bank. “If we didn’t have them here, the closest would be Fargo or Minneapolis.”
That would have meant relying on transportation by plane or highway, to get the needed supply, and — more importantly — losing valuable time.
“Timing is everything,” said Schue. “When you’re bleeding that fast, you need that supply right away.”
Alex and his family are full of gratitude.
This is “a miracle we have seen in our lives,” he said. “It’s something we’ll never forget.
“I don’t believe we’ll be able to thank people enough,” he said. The physicians, nurses, technicians and other health professionals “were just fabulous.
“They were on their toes every day, every minute.”
There’s been “a tremendous outpouring of support” from family and friends, people from local churches and the UND Energy and Environmental Research Center, his employer, he said.
“We turn to prayer and ask God to bless these people.”
Prayer is what got the family through this, he said.
Gratitude begets action
“We have Florence’s life because of the blood someone donated,” Alex said. “We have a healthy new baby in our family, and I still have my wife. I am forever grateful.”
The Azenkengs are so grateful they plan to establish a foundation or a nonprofit organization, “Wonders of Blood Donation,” to raise awareness of the importance of blood donation.
They also hope to promote healthy lifestyle choices, especially among women.
“Doctors told us that because Florence is young and healthy, she was able to recover,” Alex said. “If she had any health problems at all, the outcome would have been much different.”
The organization will also support families that find themselves in emergency situations and need child-care and other help — the dilemma Alex faced when, all of a sudden, he had to attend to his wife and new daughter as well as look after the couple’s other children, Reggie, 8, Lyonelle, 5 and Jaden, 3, not to mention professional responsibilities.
He works as a research scientist at the UND EERC and teaches at UND.
Even when Florence returned home, her strength and muscle dexterity were so diminished that “a facial tissue was too heavy,” she said. She couldn’t hold a pen. She had to have physical therapy.
They want to extend their efforts to Africa and their home country, the Republic of Cameroon, to advance blood donation services there.
“If we would have been in Cameroon, she would have been dead long ago,” Alex said. “That’s just a fact.”
To celebrate Florence’s life and promote blood donation, the family held what they plan will be an annual event. On May 26, her 31st birthday, the event featured plenty of African food, music and dance performances, and remarks by health professionals and others.
Winners of a soccer match between Grand Forks and Fargo teams won the “Alexis Cup,” named for the family’s newest member.
The large silver chalice now graces the Azenkeng home, a symbol of a greater victory that kept this family whole.
Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.