Sharleen and Adam Storey were having one of those very special days every family with children can remember. Sharleen was delivering their daughter Freya at Valley View Hospital, under the supervision of Dr. Joel Dickens, one of the excellent OB/GYNs at Women’s Health. “I’m from South Africa, and I originally wanted a ‘bush birth,’ as natural as possible,” she recalls. “But with a C-section necessary, of course we couldn’t do that. But we knew we were in great hands with Dr. Dickens.”
Sharleen would soon realize how right she was.
Valley View Hospital—and American hospitals in general—can seem almost magical in their use of modern technology and equipment. It’s easy to see medical school as a very specialized version of technical training, with physicians learning which buttons to push when and relying on their machines rather than their training.
Doctors know, however, that this view is far, far from the truth. Even as our medical personnel benefit from the most cutting-edge training and equipment, sometimes the knowledge necessary to save patients’ lives comes from less obvious places, as Dr. Joel Dickens can attest.
After Freya was delivered, Sharleen’s condition took a turn for the worse. “I lost consciousness,” she says. “I started just going in and out, and it was clear right away that Dr. Dickens was concerned. He told me that I had to get in for exploratory surgery right away, and the sense of urgency he had wasn’t something I’d seen before—everything happened very quickly. They called Adam and told him I had to go back into surgery, and then I was there.”
Just before she went under, Sharleen remembers asking Dr. Dickens if she would see her family again. “He squeezed my hand and promised that yes, I would,” she says. “Then I went under, and Dr. Dickens took it from there.”
He did so not with some cutting-edge gadget or advanced modern clinical technique. Instead, like any excellent physician would, he called on a lifetime of learning and experience to find a way to save his patient.
Photos by Emily Hodge of Simply Blessings Photography.
Early in his career, Dr. Dickens spent four years volunteering at a mission hospital in northern Ghana, a nation situated in Western Africa and filled with rural areas where access to medicine can be at a long distance. “When you work in underserved areas like Ghana there are a lot of things you pick up,” Dr. Dickens says. “Of course, it’s good to help where you can, but often you’ll also learn techniques that aren’t widely practiced in the U.S. that will benefit your patients later.”
As you might expect, many of those techniques relate to distance and time. “During long bouts of labor, mothers can experience all kinds of complications, and excessive bleeding is often one of them,” says Dickens. “When the hospital is hours away and you’ve got a woman in late-stage labor, you need to find a way to stabilize them for a long period of time to get them there. You also don’t have blood available for transfusion, so it’s vital for the patient to keep as much of their own blood as you can manage.”
In Sharleen’s case, Dr. Dickens faced the exact same challenges that he did with his patients in rural Ghana—during exploratory surgery, he found a massive hematoma, which required an emergency hysterectomy to try to find the source of the bleeding. He had to stabilize her for a long period of time, until she could be airlifted to Denver where the right emergency facilities were available. “I remembered something I’d read in an old textbook one night, something that we’d done quite often in Africa.” Acting quickly, he removed the sterile cover from a nearby piece of surgical equipment and stuffed it full with 15 laparotomy sponges (the sterile sponges surgeons use to control bleeding inside the body during surgery). He then used this makeshift pad to apply pressure to Sharleen’s pelvis, controlling her bleeding and stabilizing her for the airlift to Denver.
“You tend to do a little of everything there,” he continues. “You also see patients in more advanced stages of disease due to the lack of fast transportation. This technique was something I remember from back then, and it happened to be the right one for Sharleen’s situation.”
Sharleen did see her family again—and upon waking in Denver, she realized how close she’d come. “My husband was a rock star during the whole thing,” she says. “He was such a strong presence the whole way, and seeing the relief on his face when I woke up, I understood how scary the situation had been.”
“Dr. Dickens saved my life! I would not be alive today if it wasn’t for him.”
For his part, Dr. Dickens attributes the happy ending to his experience in Ghana. “Working there taught me so much, and I’m just glad that I was able to use what I learned. I never would have known to do that if not for my experiences there.”