Woman recounts death experience

LARRY C. BOWERS Banner Staff Writer
Posted 5/4/15

“I think I died!”

Those were the first words Sissy Figlestahler said to her doctor four years ago after recovering from a near-fatal episode following the birth of her fourth son during a …

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Woman recounts death experience

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“I think I died!”

Those were the first words Sissy Figlestahler said to her doctor four years ago after recovering from a near-fatal episode following the birth of her fourth son during a medical emergency.

Sissy and her husband, Andy, were expecting the birth when she began to have problems and bleeding. She called her physician, Dr. Kent Childs, and he directed her to Parkridge East Hospital in Chattanooga.

The hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit proved crucial in the survival of Sissy and son Patrick on Jan. 2, 2011.

Upon arrival at the hospital, the problems continued and Patrick was delivered via an emergency cesarean.

Although the baby was out of danger, his mother was not. She went into shock, and continued to bleed.

“She had an amniotic fluid embolism, where her blood did not clot at all,” said Childs. She literally “bled out,” a condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation.

Childs and his team were joined by other doctors as they struggled to save the young mother’s life.

Anesthesiologist Dr. Bill Falinski stood by watching Figlestahler’s vital signs fade away. She had no blood pressure, little heart beat, and her vitals continued to plunge.

She did not know, until later, the battle that was being waged in the intensive care unit. She used up all of the hospital’s blood in her type, all the universal blood, and additional blood rushed in by Blood Assurance. A nurse had to rush into the parking lot to get that blood from a bloodmobile.

In all, she was given 20 units of blood, about twice the amount in a normal body, in addition to platelets and clotting fluids.

“They told me there was so much blood on the floor, they had to lay down towels so the doctors could walk,” Figlestahler said in a recent interview.

Nurses noted on their report she was passing blood clots the size of tennis balls.

Doctors say the survival rate for a person with this emergency is only about 20 percent. Not many survive, and most are diagnosed during their autopsy.

Figlestahler has learned of several women who have gone through similar incidents. They did not survive.

She believes to this day that she died on the table, as she recalls an out-of-body experience she had during the crisis.

“I was not sure what I was,” she remembers. “I did not feel I was a human being, and did not remember being a human being. I did not know what I was, where I was, or why I was there.”

She said she was above the table, but did not see individuals.

“I only saw shapes,” she said.

She came out of her trance-like state when she heard her doctor screaming at her.

“He screamed my name, and said, ‘I’m doing my part, you have to do yours!’ ”

That last-second plea was apparently enough to revive the young mother to help the doctors finally stop the bleeding. She awoke later on a ventilator, and that was when she told her doctor she believed she had died, at least for a short time.

Childs’ response was to tell her to rest, which was not an easy task. They had restrained her on the bed to keep her immobilized.

The ordeal, and near-death experience, has changed Figlestahler’s life.

She and her husband have four healthy, active boys who she says are a handful. But, she vividly remembers she was almost taken away from sharing her life with them.

She is an avid supporter of several donor programs, especially Blood Assurance. She plans to attend the grand reopening of the Cleveland donor center, which has moved from Keith Street to Village Green. The event is scheduled for Thursday, May 21.

“Several people volunteered to give the blood that saved my life,” she said. “I can do no less for someone else.”

At Blood Assurance, she is trying to build up to 20 units donated, the amount she received during her ordeal.

She said she came to Blood Assurance on the one-year anniversary of her experience.

“It was very emotional,” she said.

She and Andy have shared the experience with her boys, so they will remember how fortunate they are to have their mother through these growing-up years.

She also wants to donate her entire body to science when she does die.

The experience also formed a very close, but sad, relationship with the anesthesiologist from that day. Falinski came to her room a couple of days after the emergency and was surprised at her condition.

They talked about the fact she apparently “died” during the event, and quickly became close friends. Unfortunately, the doctor was diagnosed with lung cancer a few months later, and their friendship endured through his illness.

They had become so close, Sissy was with the doctor, and his wife, when he later passed away.

A young, vibrant mother today, Figlestahler has also altered her views somewhat on life and death since that fateful day.

Based on her experience, she now believes that when your life is over (on this plain), your memories are erased as you move on.

“I was right there at death’s door,” she emphasizes. “Now I know that this isn’t all there is. I know there’s life after this! I am not afraid to die!”

She shared a favorite saying about life and death. It says, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but rather spiritual beings on a human journey!”

She said she is thankful for all the things that happened to her during and since her ordeal.

Figlestahler is thankful her doctor, who came and sat by her bedside for two hours following the surgery. She wrote a letter to the Chattanooga Medical Association, and he was one of 10 Chattanooga physicians recognized on Doctors Appreciation Day.

Childs was on vacation when her emergency happened, but came in to save her life.

She is thankful Parkridge East has a blood bank. If not, she would have surely died.

She is thankful for her family and her four healthy boys: Andrew, 10, Jack, 8, John Peter, 6, and Patrick, who was born on that fateful day four years ago.

She is thankful to be able to enjoy an active life. She is a writer for the Wisk Foods magazine out of California, and teaches a free yoga class at Broad Street Methodist Church every Wednesday at 6 p.m.

She also has the full-time job of raising her sons.

She is thankful the experience has reaffirmed her belief that there is life after death, and that she has nothing to fear from what the future has in store.

She is tremendously thankful for “the day I died!”

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