An Unexpected Journey From Nurse to Patient


She often says it was like one of those reality shows where the boss goes undercover. But this was no television show. It was her real life. And she needed help to hang on to it.


Denise McDonald, service director for Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s emergency and trauma services, steadily faces down dire situations every day. But even she chokes up when she remembers details from that Sunday afternoon more than two years ago.


“It was a freak accident, really. It wasn’t my horse’s fault. I was alone at the ranch, cleaning up for the day. It was about a quarter to five and I was dumping buckets of grain for the horses. One of them, Dakota, is a bully with the food so he came through and the baby, Valentine, lifted his knee to move away. Valentine is a huge horse and I’m a small person. His knee hit my side and knocked me hard to the ground,” Denise recalls.


She didn’t have time to put her hands out or react to break the fall. She fell face first, her forehead in the dirt.


“I thought to myself, ‘This one is going to hurt tomorrow’ and suspected I might have broken a rib,” Denise recalls. But, in ‘self-triage’ mode, she moved to palpate her rib cage and didn’t feel any broken bones, and she could breathe normally.


She left the ranch and drove the 12-minute route back to her house. She walked into her utility room, and nearly fainted. She got on the floor and put her feet up in the air.




Did You Know?

Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital has one of the oldest surgical training programs in the western united states; the surgical residency program was instituted in 1921, and has been fully approved since 1944, shortly after the founding of the American Board of Surgery. The comprehensive, five-year surgical residency program at SBCH is structured to provide progressive surgical education as well as clinical and research experience. Residents and attending physicians help to provide around-the-clock physician coverage, contributing to a robust staff of physicians onsite and on-call. Cottage maintains a close affiliation with the County Department of Public Health, whose surgery and surgical specialty clinics are staffed by residents, with the supervision of attending physicians. All County patients requiring hospitalization are admitted to SBCH, providing continuity of resident care.


Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital emergency departments are staffed by the same physician group. Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital provides 24-hour emergency care and will expedite the transfer of any patient in need of additional trauma care, creating a comprehensive system of emergency care and trauma services for the South Coast.


“I was probably still in denial about how bad it was, and I didn’t want to be dramatic about it. I remember that I was covered in dirt and wanted to shower and change before going to the hospital,” says Denise. “By then I had figured I needed to be evaluated, but still thought it would just be for soreness.”


When she headed to the shower, Denise felt the faintness return and folded herself back onto the floor, thinking how good the cold tile felt beneath her. She realized then that she was in serious trouble, bleeding from something, but she couldn’t reach her phone and was afraid to get upright.


“I knew I had to get outside to get help. When I felt I had a good enough blood pressure to make it outside, I went straight for my front door and headed across my yard, trying to get to the home of my neighbor, a county firefighter. I made it to the middle of my front lawn and collapsed on the ground.


“Fortunately it was a Sunday afternoon and my neighbors spotted me there,” says Denise.


Soon she was surrounded by worried neighbors who called 911.


Denise understood the gravity of her situation. She needed to get stabilized, and she urgently needed blood to survive. The paramedics took her directly to Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital.


“I arrived with a pressure of 50! My friends there had no idea it was me until we rolled into the ED [emergency department],” remembers Denise.


Nurses Debbie Eckles and Jean Aasted met the ambulance when Denise arrived. “We have you,” they told her.


“They were fabulous,” says Denise. “I thought I might be dying as my blood pressure dropped lower. They were right there, one on each side, and never stopped caring for me...and I do mean caring. I will never forget those minutes I spent with them and the incredible mark they left on my soul.”


A bedside ultrasound revealed that Denise’s spleen was shattered. The team at Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital worked flawlessly to get Denise stabilized and ready for transport. She could hear the doctors consulting on the phone and she called out for them to warn SBCH that she was coming. She didn’t want her colleagues there to be surprised like they were in the Valley.


“I was a Tier 1 trauma patient in my own ED,” Denise still can’t fathom the odds.


“I’ll never forget what I saw when the ambulance doors opened in Santa Barbara...there was the team lined up outside in the trauma bay, waiting for me. The nurses, techs, doctors. I looked at them and felt like there was nothing they couldn’t fix.”


After an emergency surgery to remove her ruptured spleen and stop the bleeding, she spent eight days in the hospital and then went home to continue the process of recovery.


Before the surgery, intensive care nurse Susan Mozako asked Denise about contacting family. “Sue called my mom and dad back in the Midwest to give them updates on my progress. My mom sent a special thank-you note to Sue afterward. She still remembers Sue’s kindness that meant so much.”


As Denise learned, sometimes actually putting gratitude into words isn’t easy: “I’m so thankful to all the people who helped me at both hospitals. It’s really hard to thank those who saved your life. I just don’t know what to say. All the patients and families who write the hospital beautiful letters of thanks — I appreciate those even more now, knowing how difficult that is.


“Having Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital nearby truly saved my life,” says Denise, reflecting on the consistent protocols and outstanding clinical skills she sees throughout the Cottage system. “Its ability to care for patients is superb.”


“A near-death experience definitely changes things. That day I had no idea how events would unfold, that I’d be in shock at 5:30 that night.


“I am so proud of being a nurse. I learned so much about the patient side and believe I am a better nurse now because of that. The path to full recovery really makes you appreciate your health and your healthcare providers. The surgical residents, surgeon, nurses, and my neighbors played a huge role in my experience. I will never forget that.”


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