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Video: Doctor faces worst fear: Saving wife’s life

By TODAY.com contributor
TODAY
updated 3/10/2011 10:59:57 AM ET 2011-03-10T15:59:57

Dr. Timothy Delgado has twice saved the same patient’s life. What makes his story extraordinary is that patient is his wife.

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Both fresh out of medical school, the Delgados had been married just a few months when tragedy struck in October of 2010. An avid bicyclist, Allison had started out on what she thought would be a long, relaxing ride when she crashed into a car that didn’t yield.

Allison hit the car broadside and flew over its roof, fracturing several vertebrae, her clavicle, her sternum, and her jaw. Although she was wearing a helmet at the time, she also sustained a severe head injury.

She was rushed to Mercy Hospital, the nearest medical center. Once she arrived, the Mercy doctors recognized she’d need to be transferred to a trauma center for specialized care and they put out a call for a helicopter to transfer her.

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Tim, an emergency helicopter physician at the Cincinnati University Hospital, was having a quiet day when the call came. He was told that a Jane Doe in her 20s had been seriously injured in a cycling accident.

Tim never thought it could be his wife. “I thought she would be running that day,” he told TODAY’s Matt Lauer. “It never even crossed my mind.”

When Tim arrived at the hospital, he immediately started checking the vital signs of the woman on the stretcher. A few seconds passed before he noticed she was wearing his cycling team’s uniform. He thought, “Please don’t let it be Alli.” Then he looked up and realized the badly injured woman was his beloved wife.

He announced, in shock, “That’s my wife.”

Silence blanketed the room. But then the flight nurse sprang into action and ordered another crew to come to take over Allison’s treatment because physicians are not supposed to take care of family members.

“When I walked into that room I was a physician treating a patient,” Tim told Lauer. “As soon as I saw Allison, I was no longer a physician, I was just a panic-stricken, distraught husband.”

That’s why doctors are not supposed to treat family members, Delgado explained.

“My judgment and my thinking at that point was clouded,” he told Lauer. “I was worried Allison was critically injured and dying in front of me."

Breaking the rules
Still, Tim knew time was of the essence, so he decided to break the rules — at least until the other crew could get there. Crying, he held his wife’s hand, reassuring her, “Hold on babe. You’re gonna be OK.” At the same time, he was directing the medical staff to give her medications that would save her life, and protect her brain. 

With Tim’s help, Allison made it through the night, but she was in a coma for the next week. When she woke up, she remembered nothing about the accident. In fact, today she remembers nothing about the first several weeks following her injury.

When examining her brain, doctors at the hospital found an aneurysm — a blood vessel that had swollen and threatened to rupture. The aneurysm was treated with a coil to stop it from bursting and in November, Allison was sent home to recuperate.

But two days later, shortly after the Delgados went to bed, Allison shot up and screamed, “Oh, my head.” Tim was sure that the aneurysm had burst and that blood was pooling in Allison’s brain. She was suffering a seizure, and she began to vomit.

Tim knew that his wife was in immediate danger. Her jaw was wired shut and if the vomit trickled down into her lungs, she might suffocate and die before the ambulance arrived. The only thing that would save her was a breathing tube that would need to be stabbed through her neck and into her airway. The tube would bypass her throat, allowing her to breathe even if she continued to vomit.

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Though Tim had the right equipment, he had no pain killers in his black bag. Worse yet, he’d never actually done the procedure before — only seen other doctors do it.

He realized that if he didn’t insert the tube, Allison might die. It took three tries before he succeeded. And he had to fight to keep Allison still. She had bolted awake from the pain at his first attempt.

The experience that night was far more frightening to Tim than the first time he saved his wife’s life. 

“It was horrible,” he told Lauer. “I was alone. The first time we had another doctor there, we had nurses there. [This time] I felt like I was an island.... It was just me. I had to do this.”

Now, recovery; next, a marathon?
Today Allison is on the road to recovery, improving much faster than her doctors ever expected. She goes to rehab seven days a week and hopes that she’ll soon be able to go back to her job as a pediatric resident at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. But her biggest goal is to be able to run in the 2012 Flying Pig Marathon, a race she won in 2005, even though it was her very first marathon.

Allison accepts what happens to her and even sees some good in it. “We became a lot stronger. We've always said we're a team,” she says. “We continue to be a team. I always know that Tim will be here for me, and I'll be there for him as well.” 

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