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Pillager couple finding new normal after medical scare

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PILLAGER — February 10 is a day Terry Dolan will never forget. It’s the day he almost lost the love of his life.

He was awakened at 4:30 a.m. by his wife of 15 years, Patti, nudging the end of the bed. She didn’t say a word, just prodded him enough to wake up and turn on the light. That’s when he knew something was terribly wrong.

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“When I saw her eyes I knew she was in trouble,” he said. “She was looking at me like a deer caught in the headlights. Totally unresponsive.”

Not knowing what was wrong, but sensing the seriousness of the situation, he quickly picked her up, brought her to the car and raced from their rural Pillager home to Brainerd’s Essentia Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center. He later learned his quick actions might have been what saved Patti’s life.

A CT scan showed bleeding on half of Patti’s brain. An ER doctor prepared Terry for the worst, saying she likely had an aneurysm or tumor explosion, both extremely serious conditions. Before he knew it, Terry was back on the road, headed to St. Cloud Hospital where Patti was being transferred via helicopter.

“Once I got to St. Cloud I really thought they were going to tell me either she didn’t survive the flight or that machines were the only thing keeping her alive,” Terry said.

But that wasn’t the case. In St. Cloud, a more detailed MRI scan revealed Patti didn’t suffer an aneurism or a tumor. She had a ruptured cerebral AVM, or arterial vascular malformation, which means the blood vessels in her brain were malformed, a condition she was born with but didn’t know about. Forty-one years later, on the morning of Feb. 10, those vessels burst.

Along with the new diagnosis came another helicopter ride for Patti. She was transferred to St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, which happens to have a nationally renowned brain trauma center.

The whirlwind continued.

“From 4:30 Friday morning to 3 o’clock that afternoon, Patti had five CT scans, an MRI, two helicopter transfers, major brain surgery and artery reconstruction,” Terry said. “All that in 10 and a half hours.

“All I could do was pray. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room in St. Paul and just staring at the wall. I couldn’t even think of anything. I couldn’t do anything. My mind was just blank. All I could do was pray.”

For the next 19 days, Patti remained in the ICU at St. Joseph’s in St. Paul, in a chemically induced coma much of that time. The left side of her brain was affected by the AVM, meaning the right side of her body was immobile and her speech was also greatly affected.

Once Patti was considered stable and was off all of her pain medications, she was transferred to Bethesda Hospital, only a couple blocks away from St. Joseph’s in St. Paul.

Patti was at Bethesda, a long-term acute care hospital, a total of 38 days. It was there that she learned to breathe and eventually eat on her own.

Her first food? Applesauce.

“I loved it,” Patti said.

After more than a month of intense occupational, physical and speech therapy, Patti learned to move her right hand, arm and leg, eventually walking again and even saying a few words. Her therapy continued a little closer to home after being transferred to Country Manor, a rapid recovery and aquatic center in Sartell.

On day 79 of her ordeal, Patti came home.

She continues wowing her therapists four days a week by her constant improvements.

“There isn’t anything she can’t do,” Terry said. “Every day is better than the last.”

While Patti said speech continues to be her toughest obstacle, since moving home she’s been able to cook and enjoys doing laundry and perusing Facebook and Pintrest.

Life for the Dolans is different than it ever used to be — Patti worked four days a week cleaning homes for her business, Custom Maid Home Cleaning, while Terry worked nearly 80 hours a week in the summer as event service manager at Madden’s Resort and spent hockey season coaching the Squirt B team for the last 14 years.

“My priorities in life are way different now,” Terry said. “I’m lucky. I get a second chance. I almost didn’t. Through all of this I learned to take time and be around the ones I love because they’re what matters most.”

Family and friends of Terry and Patti are hosting a benefit from 5-9 p.m. June 1 at Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter to help pay for Patti’s ongoing medical expenses. There will be a sloppy joe dinner, a silent auction, a live auction and a raffle with many prizes, including a kayak, a smoker grill and other items donated by local people and businesses.

“‘Thank you’ almost isn’t enough. But thank you for everyone who has been here for us through all of this,” Terry said. “Our feelings toward everyone who has supported us is beyond thank-yous.”

HEIDI LAKE is the niece of Patti and Terry Dolan.

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