Liz Sewell: Medical ‘Miracle’

Patty Fuller
By Patty Fuller December 15, 2015 17:13

Liz Sewell at home in Sonora

At 67, Liz Sewell’s life has two distinct chapters.

The first is about a smart, funny and determined person who devoted much of her adult life to sheltering and empowering abused and battered women.

The second began on March 1, 2012, and continues still. What Sewell herself has survived since then changed her life forever – and has virtually everyone in her wide circle of family and friends calling her a living miracle.

On that day, Sewell was trimming a peach tree behind the Sonora-area home she shares with her longtime partner, Marilyn Orloff, a retired airline pilot. Hit by sudden neck pain and feeling extremely weak, she called for Orloff.

Within hours, Sewell underwent emergency heart surgery at Modesto’s Doctors Medical Center to repair a split aorta. Shortly after the operation she suffered a massive stroke and was in a coma for 10 days.

Citing brain scans that showed no hint of activity, her surgeon said there was no prospect of recovery. He told Sewell’s family and Orloff that it might be time to take Sewell off life support. After painful discussion, they agreed.

Fran Darling, one of Sewell’s three siblings, has vivid recollections of March 13, 2012, when the respirator was unplugged. Her heart-wrenching plan was to read the 23rd Psalm as her last words to the big sister she had adored for all of her 62 years.

“I remember the hospital staff telling us that whatever time you want to spend with her, that time is now,” she says.

Stricken family members and friends stepped outside to give Fran Darling a private final moment at her sister’s bedside. With Bible in hand, Darling began reciting the familiar passage, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …”

“And Liz started repeating the words back to me,” Darling says, her tone still one of disbelief. “This is a woman who according to a CT scan was supposed to die, but she was waking up.”

Speechless and dazed, Fran Darling walked out of the hospital room as younger sister Katie Brien walked in. Darling recalls the moment as surreal, and remembers wandering through the intensive care unit. “I was so stunned that I just wasn’t thinking straight,” she says.


Sewell’s sisters, Fran and Katie

Brien reached Darling moments later by cell phone. “She’s talking, and asking for ice, and says the ice tastes like gin and tonic. Get back here,” Darling recalls her sister saying.

Later that day, Sewell’s friend Linda DuTemple sent a stunning e-mail to some 50 friends and coworkers at the Center for a Non Violent Community, the nonprofit Liz had helped found and had led as executive director for more than 12 years.

“This morning Liz’s family decided, under the circumstances, to take her off the respirator,” wrote DuTemple, a longtime Center advocate who had taken on the task of keeping Sewell’s coworkers and friends informed of her condition. “And she woke up! She is talking, answered all neurological test questions correctly … The doctors say she is still in grave condition, but the vital signs are good … It is difficult for me to go from grieving to amazement and relief.”

Up to that point, DuTemple’s updates had been grim. An earlier e-mail alerted anyone wanting to visit Sewell that “now is the time,” as a decision about removing life support neared. “Still waiting for a miracle,” that e-mail concluded.

A miracle is exactly what happened, says Fran Darling.

“It’s just an experience that never leaves you,” she says from her San Diego home. “I celebrate my sister constantly.”

Sewell’s surgeon, Dr. Noel Concepcion, has since left his Modesto cardiology practice to work in Guam and could not be reached. Alerted soon after Sewell woke and began to talk, the doctor arrived at the room in minutes.

“His mouth dropped,” Darling recalls. “Seriously, I’ll never forget it. I have never seen anyone so shocked in my life.”

Among those receiving DuTemple’s updates was Claire Mills, a well-known nurse practitioner in Sonora and another of Sewell’s longtime friends.

“Am having trouble wrapping my head around this medically,” Mills e-mailed back, upon reading of Sewell’s awakening. “Perhaps I will call this what it is … a miracle.”

To this day, Sewell says she’s never received a medical explanation of how she survived both a split aorta and the coma.

liz-sewellFN00120edited“They have no clue,” she says of her conversations with Concepcion and other health professionals during her recovery. “That’s why I put it in the miracle realm. Aortic dissection has a pretty high mortality rate, especially followed by a coma that says you’re brain dead. That’s what threw them for a loop.”

Interviewed in her peaceful home with the peach trees in back, Sewell remembers that sunny morning of March 1, but says the following month or so is a blank.

She knows, however, how her sudden health crisis affected those closest to her.

“It was infinitely harder on the people around me than it was on me,” Sewell says. “I’m still processing the whole thing. I can still be relatively shocked that I am here.”

The months after her return to consciousness were an emotional and physical struggle. She learned through two years of various types of therapy what skills and abilities she would regain.

Signs of the stroke still remain. Sewell has a weakened left arm and tingling in her fingers and toes. So while she can again drive, putting on earrings is a real challenge. Once a fast typist, she describes her current hit-and-miss keyboard skills as “rather entertaining.” And cooking, which she loved to do, is difficult.

Her sense of humor, however, has survived intact: She loves the gin-and-tonic comment she’s told was among her first post-coma words – particularly since she has never been partial to that cocktail.

“I’ve been drinking Jack Daniel’s my whole life,” she laughs. “So it’s become a family joke.”

Because of her uncertain health, Sewell immediately retired as the Center for a Non Violent Community’s executive director, but she now sits on its board.

The plans for the retirement she and Orloff envisioned have also changed. While Sewell’s life has returned in most ways to how it was, Orloff, 67, has early-onset Alzheimer’s and spends part of each week in assisted living.

“I do have my moments,” Sewell admits. “My life isn’t what I thought it would be. I thought Marilyn and I would have the time to travel and do what we wanted. Now it’s physically hard on me. And it’s hard to watch someone slowly die from Alzheimer’s.”

But “post-event,” as Sewell refers to her life since early 2012, she is quick to emphasize the upsides of her life and altered outlook.

“At my best, I don’t doubt that I can handle anything that comes along. I’ve learned how strong I am,” she says. “And I lean more – gratefully – on both my sisters. That I never would have done before. It’s been a great lesson in humility … and it’s a great lesson in letting go.”

She expresses thanks for her close relationship with her sisters and brother Adam, and for the friends who have supported her throughout this long ordeal.

“She’s just a beloved person,” says DuTemple. “Liz is loved because she exhibits all the qualities that make her a cherished friend. … She has devoted her life to making women’s lives valued.”

When not spending time with Orloff, Sewell stays busy with friends, daily phone calls with her siblings, periodic trips with her sisters and assisting at the Center.

And she takes nothing for granted.

“In the past, I could see courage in big things – Stephen Hawking, the courage of battered women to leave their husbands, surviving breast cancer,” she says. “But living with grace day to day takes courage, too. People take that for granted. I don’t do that anymore.

“If you stop and think about it for even five seconds, it’s an amazing world. And I am grateful to be in it.”


This story appeared as part of our cover story, Survivors: Lessons in Resilience,” in our Winter 2014-’15 issue. Click on these links to read the other survivors’ stories:

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Patty Fuller
By Patty Fuller December 15, 2015 17:13
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