By the time emergency workers arrived at Michele De Leeuw’s Sterling Heights home on Aug. 15, 2018, she was near death. Stricken by cardiac arrest, Michele, then 57, lay on the floor unconscious. She hadn’t drawn a breath for at least 12 minutes, despite her husband Karl’s efforts to revive her with chest compressions. Emergency workers from the Sterling Heights Fire Department got Michele’s heart beating again, then an ambulance crew took her to St. John Macomb Hospital. Doctors put her on a ventilator and induced medical hypothermia. Michele remained unconscious and had brain activity of just 5 percent; her heart was pumping at 25 percent capacity.
But seven days later, something startling happened: When the doctors, following the family’s wishes, took her off of life support, Michele started breathing on her own. Days later, even as she seemingly still hovered between life and death, her eyes opened. A few days after that, she started talking. Nurses on her floor started calling Michele the “Miracle Lady.”
Her confounding turnaround continued. And, a mere 31 days after her near-death experience, the hospital was able to discharge Michele. At home, her lifestyle returned to normal almost immediately. Her first project: a load of laundry.
But Michele’s recovery continued beyond her hospital stay. Before her discharge, doctors tried a heart catheterization to clear out the vessel blockages that had nearly killed her, but the blockages were so thick the guide wire used in the procedure couldn’t penetrate them. On Oct. 19, 2018, nearly one month after leaving the hospital, Michele returned for open-heart surgery and a quadruple bypass.
Today, Michele is still convalescing, but she and her family — her husband Karl, the couple’s children Myles and Jake, and her siblings — were willing to share how this dramatic crisis affected their lives.
Offending the Devil
Michele remembers nothing of what happened during her cardiac arrest. In fact, her memory is blank until the last week of her hospitalization, well after she regained consciousness. But sometime in that period, the lifelong Catholic says she saw both Jesus and the Devil. Jesus was a silent bystander, she says, but “I talked to the Devil and he said he didn’t like my face,” Michele recalls. She says she flipped Satan the bird, and both spirits vanished. Given what she and her family say about Michele’s personality, her cheeky response to the Prince of Darkness seems quite in character. But the cardiac arrest and its aftermath have changed her. Michele says she’s calmer now and doesn’t have the same worries she had before.
Her dramatic scare and recovery have brought her a lot of attention, unasked for but graciously accepted both by Michele and her family. In a ceremony in December 2018, the Sterling Heights Fire Department awarded her a survivor’s coin and she was able to meet up with some of her rescuers. In January 2019, she took a brief break from cardiac rehab and flew to New York City with her family to tape a segment about her experience on The Dr. Oz Show. “I feel appreciative that people are thinking about me,” she says.
The Catholic Church is thinking about her, too: Church officials are investigating a number of alleged miracles that some claim as the work of Father Solanus Casey, a deceased Detroit priest. Michele’s sister Sharon brought a Casey medal to her bedside the day after she was hospitalized. The Rev. Ed Foley, a Capuchin priest in charge of the investigation into Casey’s alleged miracles, declined to comment on Michele’s case due to the federal patient privacy law. He did, however, allow that if Rome declares her survival and recovery to be a Casey miracle, it could move him toward sainthood.
Meanwhile, Michele says she’s about three-quarters recovered from her heart ordeal. She walks on a treadmill three times a week during cardiac rehab. Michele, who in her 31 years at the Roma Café in Detroit worked her way up from hat check girl to general manager, now says that even though she’s used to eating what she wants, it’s time for her to get serious about cleaning up her diet. She’s also taking medication to lower her cholesterol from its former, sky-high levels of between 350-500 — it should be around 200 or lower.
Something He Can Do
Some weeks after the August crisis, when they were on their way to one of many follow-up doctor visits, Karl couldn’t keep his composure when he saw Michele put on her black ballerina flats for the trip. “I was going to bury you in those shoes,” he told Michele through his tears. Since the crisis, such sudden, emotional reactions, ready to spill out from just below the surface, have become the new norm for the De Leeuws.
This change may be surprising to the couple, given that they’ve been married for 26 years and together for almost 30. There’s a lot the Sterling Heights pair, both 58, know about each other, including their shared wish not to undergo heroic measures to postpone death if surviving a near-death experience would mean becoming severely disabled. “We went through this 10 years ago with my brother,” Karl says. Karl’s brother Duane stopped breathing, was without oxygen for 25 minutes, and never regained consciousness. He died a week later.
After that, Karl and Michele talked periodically about what they would want should a life-threatening situation happen. That’s why, when doctors told Karl there was little hope for Michele to recover, “I already knew what I was going to do,” he says. “The harder decision was once they removed the ventilator and she started breathing on her own.” Although she was breathing without mechanical help, medical staff offered no hope for Michele to live without a feeding tube. Based on their discussions, Karl knew she didn’t want that, so the doctors offered comfort care instead. With comfort care, his wife, who was still in a coma at the time, wouldn’t be fed or hydrated. “At that point, I felt I was killing her,” Karl says. “But I thought if she woke up and found that tube, she’d kill me.”
Karl recalls that once Michele did wake up, she took a while to return to normal. At first, she didn’t know what year it was and thought she was in a foreign country — her answers to routine questions to see if a patient is oriented to time and place. She did come close to answering one of the queries, however. When asked who the U.S. president was, she answered, “It’s the dude with the hairdo.”
Her recovery was slow and sometimes unsteady. In the earliest days after regaining consciousness, she got angry at times and had to be put in restraints. “But truly for me, the hardest thing was I knew she wasn’t comprehending anything,” Karl says. “You looked at her and she just wasn’t there.” Michele’s eyes wouldn’t always track correctly at first, either. They seemed to move independently of one another or would roll back in their sockets.
She had different therapies to get stronger for her open-heart surgery, help with her memory, and guide her through relearning how to manage steps. Karl still insists on taking her for every medical visit and, thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act, can take time off his job as a floor supervisor at the MGM Grand Detroit Casino to do so. Asked why he wouldn’t let anyone else take his wife to her appointments, Karl says, “I just won’t,” as tears well up in his eyes. “I felt so helpless after the cardiac arrest and now this is something I can do.”
Medical professionals have known for a long time that if a patient develops a fever after a cardiac arrest, it damages brain function. More recently, doctors have tested the reverse and found that reducing a patient’s temperature is beneficial for the brain.
“Therapeutic hypothermia has been used widely since the early 2000s, when several important clinical trials showed that cooling helps to reduce brain damage in patients who have had an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Simon R. Dixon, chair of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Beaumont, Royal Oak.
Current guidelines call for cooling the core body temperature to 89.6 or 93.2 degrees for up to 24 hours with ice packs, intravascular cold saline solution, and cooling blankets to help improve the survival rate and preserve
Dr. Michael Mooney of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation in Minnesota wrote in a September 2018 editorial in the medical journal JACC: Cardiovascular Interventions that the potential impact of therapeutic hypothermia is great for the 300,000 U.S. residents who have cardiac arrest outside of a hospital each year.
“Survival rates are notoriously dismal (6 percent to 9 percent), and adverse neurological sequelae [consequences] are common and disabling among survivors, with a minority experiencing a return to pre-event functional status,” he writes.
Life Lessons from the Street
On Aug. 16, 2018, the day after Michele’s cardiac arrest, daughter Myles, 24, of East Lansing, was booked to do her stand-up comedy act at Trixie’s Bar in Hamtramck. “I didn’t tell my jokes,” she says. “I told some stories about my mom.” Like the time Myles and Jake’s grades weren’t up to par in elementary school. Because of her job in the Eastern Market area, Michele knew some of the sex workers in the neighborhood. So, she drove the children there and, as they looked on from the car, asked one of the women if she ended up in her situation because of getting bad grades in school. “People were laughing,” Myles says of the crowd at Trixie’s. “At the time it was a good way to remember my mom.”
Jake, who’s 21 and lives with his parents, drew on the family’s experience a few months afterward. That happened in December, when a boy in Jake’s group of friends died by suicide. “I sort of knew the kind of feeling to expect,” he says. “It felt familiar.” Something unfamiliar to both the De Leeuw children was planning for their mother’s funeral.
Jake says it was “sort of surreal” to visit the funeral home with his sister, dad, and aunt, where they picked out a burgundy-colored casket, even as Michele lingered in the hospital. “We decided to go with that color because she likes red wine,” Jake says. The brother and sister even went through Michele’s closet with Karl to pick out their mom’s burial attire: a black dress with two white bows at the waist, an angel brooch their mom wore pinned to her shoulder, a pearl necklace, wedding ring, and those black ballerina flats. “After she took off her high heels from work, those were the shoes she put on,” Myles says.
Like her mom, Myles appreciates all of the support the family has gotten. She sees her mom differently than before, as more fighter than fragile. Jake says Michele, with her second chance at life, seems happier now.
Behind Him 100 Percent
After Michele, still unconscious, was taken off life support, it was time for her siblings to say their final words to their “baby sister.” “When I kissed her goodbye,” says sister Denise Tujaka, “a tear rolled down Michele’s right cheek.” Her brother Bill Stanley noticed the tear: “She’s crying from what Denise said.”
Maybe it was a sign of the miracle to come. But before the crisis, there had been signs that something was amiss — indications that, in hindsight, there was something threatening the health of this woman who so disliked seeing doctors and taking medication.
In the weeks leading up to the cardiac arrest, Stanley’s friend Julie mentioned Michele just didn’t look right. Another friend’s husband didn’t even recognize her, although he has known Michele for many years. She had a grayish cast to her skin. And she seemed to have trouble understanding some conversation.
Michele’s family has a history of cardiac disease. Stanley, 66, and Tujaka, 63, have had strokes. They and another sister, Sharon Mielke, 71, all take statins for high cholesterol. Their mom had a cardiac arrest, also at age 57. Their dad had open-heart surgery and his mother cardiac trouble, too.
Months after Michele’s near-death experience, her siblings still tear up when they talk about what happened to her, and how they almost lost her forever. But Tujaka, Stanley, and Mielke had something to celebrate at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the entire family gathered at Stanley’s Clinton Township home. Despite everything, the family was still intact, and, thankfully, there was no rancor over Karl’s breathing- and feeding-tube decisions for his wife. Michele’s siblings had decided unanimously they’d support him “100 percent,” whatever his choice.
Now, they say, although their baby sister had been so “big and bad” before her cardiac arrest, today she’s “softer,” and more positive. “This has brought us closer together,” Mielke says.