On March 4, Bill Munro is sure he would have died had it not been for his snowplow driver, his wife Sheila and a team of health-care professionals at the Aberdeen Hospital.
Munro, a 75-year-old Pictou County real estate agent, said he has enjoyed good health much of his life and hadn’t had a pain or a prescription in years. So, in February, when he noticed a lump on the side of his neck, he thought he just had a cold or that his lymph nodes were swollen.
Sheila, who has worked in the past as a nurse, took it more seriously and urged him to visit the Aberdeen’s emergency department. When it didn’t go away in a couple days, he took her advice.
Dr. Deborah Straub was the emergency physician working that day. She ordered a CAT scan and blood work and sent it to Halifax. The results weren’t good. Within days Munro was in Halifax having a biopsy. There he would learn the lump he had felt was a malignant tumour. A second was found at the bottom of his tongue. On Feb. 28, he had surgery to remove both.
Everything went perfectly — or so he thought — and on March 4 he was sent home. That day it was storming and he and Sheila had one-lane traffic for much of the drive back to their house on River Road in Plymouth. They were relieved to find their driveway plowed when they got home. Without thinking too much of it, Sheila asked the snowplow driver to park their cars facing down the driveway when he was done. Otherwise, it takes a minute to get the vehicles turned around.
All seemed fine, but later that day, things changed abruptly. Munro was in the bathroom washing up when all of a sudden he began to bleed uncontrollably from his mouth. The spot where the tumour was removed from under his tongue was hemorrhaging.
“It was coming out in cupfuls,” Bill said.
“I heard him say, ‘Oh no’ and when I went around to the bathroom I was like, ‘Oh shit, this isn’t good,’” said his wife.
Sheila had enough of a medical background to know it was serious and immediately called the hospital to advise them they were on the way. She then called 911 and explained the situation as she began getting Bill ready to go.
Sheila then rushed her husband to the vehicle in their driveway and took off as fast as she could for the hospital. Thankfully it was less than five minutes away. Bill was holding a five-litre pail in his hands and it was quickly filling with blood.
They met the ambulance in front of Shoppers Drug Mart on East River Road. Sheila drove in the emergency entrance to the hospital with the paramedics following closely behind.
Thanks to Sheila’s call, the hospital was ready, and as Bill stumbled out of the vehicle carrying as much blood in a bucket as he did in his veins, he was met by a team of health professionals who immediately hooked up blood transfusions in both arms.
Dr. Daniel Dittaro, the emergency physician that day, worked to intubate Bill and pack the wounded area to stop the bleeding and keep it from filling his lungs. He quickly brought things under control.
Stabilized, Bill was then taken by helicopter back to Halifax to undergo a second surgery, where his adult children and wife quickly arrived.
“Your father is alive because of the Aberdeen Hospital,” Bill says the doctors told his family.
To have stopped the bleeding and intubate him while dealing with so much blood was incredible, they said.
Because his wound had been packed so well, the Halifax doctors were able to allow Bill to rest for an additional 24 hours to be better prepared for surgery. It was life-saving.
Bill is now back at home and recovering. Doctors believe they removed all the cancer cells from his body, but he will be undergoing radiation to ensure that any stray cells weren’t missed.
Despite all he’s been through, all Bill wants to say is thank you. Thank you to the doctors who took the time to find out he had cancer and thank you to the doctor who, when seconds counted, dealt with less-than-ideal conditions to save his life.
“Thank God, they’re there. Thank God, they care,” he says.
Making the save
Emergency department physicians see every kind of illness one can imagine, but cases like Bill Munro’s aren’t the norm in a more rural area like Pictou County says Dr. Dan Dittaro, the emergency physician who treated him.
Usually post-surgery hemorrhaging happens in larger city areas where the surgeries take place.
When it happened here, experience kicked in for the doctors and nurses.
“It’s a combination of sort of training and ongoing rehearsal and preparation and simulations,” he said.
While Munro graciously signaled out Dittaro’s work out for saving his life, Dittaro says in an emergency like that, it takes a whole team doing everything right to make sure a patient pulls through.
“This is very much a team game and it’s never really one individual that makes these saves,” he said. “I’m fortunate to work with some very skilled nurses and respiratory therapists.”
He said it was wonderful for his team to hear the positive feedback about Munro’s treatment. “We hear a lot of complaints and a lot of negativity but it’s nice when people reach out when it’s positive.”
Dittaro came to Pictou County about two years ago. He is originally from British Columbia and did his medical residency in Saint John.
He now works full time in the Aberdeen Hospital Emergency Department and says he loves it.
“It’s minutes to hours to make a big difference in someone’s life,” he said. “There’s life and death situations.”
He said he likes the cohesiveness he’s found in the medical profession in Pictou County and is thankful for the opportunities that it has provided him.