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Waterville resident forever grateful to doctor who saved her life

Kathy Hazel of Waterville is sure to send Dr. Benjamin Heisler, a vascular surgeon at Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville, a postcard whenever she travels. It’s her way of letting him know that she firmly believes she wouldn’t be here today if not for him.
Kathy Hazel of Waterville is sure to send Dr. Benjamin Heisler, a vascular surgeon at Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville, a postcard whenever she travels. It’s her way of letting him know that she firmly believes she wouldn’t be here today if not for him. - Ashley Thompson

WATERVILLE - Kathy Hazel’s mother taped every episode of Survivor that aired while her 38-year-old daughter was fighting for her life in a medically induced coma.

She did it despite being told her daughter might never wake up.

Dr. Benjamin Heisler is the reason Hazel would eventually get to watch those recordings.

“Everyone thought I was going to die,” said Hazel, who was touched that her mother held out hope that she would pull through and be able to catch up on the show she never missed.

“I had gone into the hospital. I was very, very sick and nobody really knew what was wrong with me.”

Thirteen years have passed since Hazel spent nearly two months in a coma that spanned from April 1 to Apple Blossom Festival time.

“I had diverticulitis, which means that your bowels literally blow up inside of you,” the Waterville resident said in a recent interview.

The condition was difficult to detect, with the main symptoms presenting as bad stomach cramps – until everything went sideways.

Hazel has a foggy recollection of the moments leading up to the sepsis that prompted the drug-induced coma. She remembers visiting her mother at home, and suddenly asking her to call an ambulance.

‘It was a crazy time’

She doesn’t know exactly how many times Heisler, a vascular surgeon at Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville, operated on her as her body battled the life-threatening infection. She suspects it was at least six. What she knows for certain, however, is that he’s the doctor credited with saving her life.

“I just have the best life ever thanks to him,” she said, smiling from ear to ear.

Hazel encountered countless medical professionals that helped her overcome the infection and reclaim her life after the coma. The road to recovery was long, spanning two years and leading her to a rehabilitation centre in Halifax.

She awoke from the coma confused, and unable to talk due to the trach that was inserted. And that’s not the half of it.

“I couldn’t move anything because things had all calcified,” she said, noting that her arms had to be cut open to allow for the removal of bones that made it impossible to bend them.

She couldn’t wash her face, brush her teeth, sit up on her own or walk – all things she had to relearn in an intensive rehabilitation program.

“It was a crazy time,” she said.

Unwavering gratitude

Now 51, Hazel said she is eternally thankful to all of the medical professionals who helped her reclaim her life. The Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre employee tries to get a trip in at least twice a year, and sends Heisler a postcard whenever she travels.
“Ever since then I send Dr. Heisler a postcard letting him know where I am and thanking him again because I wouldn’t be there without him,” she said.

“I send the postcards to let him know that I’m still very grateful.”

Hazel recently shared the story of how Heisler saved her life in a recognition initiative Doctors Nova Scotia started to give patients the opportunity to publicly thank physicians.

“Many doctors in our province take on extra work to keep local services afloat in their communities and to support patients who don’t have access to a family physician. They work long office hours and on-call shifts, treating patients of all ages and ailments. Burnout is a serious issue for doctors in our province,” said Doctors Nova Scotia president Dr. Manoj Vohra in a media release.

“But every day, our doctors go to work and do the best they possibly can. They provide high-quality, patient-centred care and speak up for their patients at every opportunity. And patients are telling us that they appreciate their work.”

‘Couldn’t ask for anything more’

The stories shared by Hazel, other Kings County patients and patients from throughout the province, are viewable by visiting an interactive story map accessible at YourDoctors.ca.

Hazel, for one, feels she can’t say thank you enough. Her cheerful presence and perky demeanour comes from a place of truly feeling lucky to be alive.

She etched out a bucket list with 33 items after coming out of the coma and crossed each one off in the last 12 years, making room to add more. She’s jumped out of an airplane, rang in the New Year in New York City, enjoyed the view from the bucket of a hot air balloon and learned to hula hoop in Hawaii – to name a few things.

The present, she said, is the perfect time to start focusing on the things that matter most.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” she said.

“Life is pretty darn good. It’s kind of what you make it.”

Hazel encourages more people to express their heartfelt gratitude to health-care providers who consistently go above and beyond for their patients while working within an over-burdened system.

“They’re all just wonderful people and I think people should know they are,” said Hazel.

“I really do think that they care and I think that they try their best.”

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