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A grateful heart

Reigning Pear Blossom Queen Shawntell Michalke is counting her blessings rather than feeling sorry for herself after enduring emergency open heart surgery.

The 18-year-old Southern Oregon University freshman was walking across campus on Nov. 18 when she collapsed face first to the ground, unable to breathe or speak. Her boyfriend called paramedics, who rushed Michalke to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford.

Michalke, a South Medford High School graduate who was crowned Pear Blossom Queen in March, suffers from a rare connective tissue disease that causes her blood vessel walls to be dangerously thin.

An initial CAT scan of her head at the hospital showed she hadn't suffered a stroke. But a second chest scan showed her aorta had split.

Blood was leaking into her body cavity instead of reaching vital body parts.

Just 30 minutes after the chest scan, Michalke was undergoing open heart surgery. Her medical team stitched and glued her aorta back together during the six-hour surgery.

"The whole hospital was so amazing, from the nurses to the surgeons to the ultrasound technicians," said Rhonda Drake, Michalke's mom. "Everyone was a team. They saved her life."

Now on the mend, Michalke is prepping to take the finals she missed at SOU because of her medical emergency.

"I still have my heart set on being a nurse and helping people," she said. "I think people have to go through something traumatic to understand and have compassion for what a patient is going through. That's one of the positives coming out of it."

Michalke said she was grateful she was walking with her boyfriend, who knows about her health issues and was able to communicate with paramedics when she couldn't speak.

"It happened the best possible way it could have," she said.

Michalke said she is thankful she didn't have a stroke. Doctors initially thought she would lose the function of one kidney because of the blood loss, but both kidneys are doing well.

Michalke said she knew going into the open heart surgery she could suffer severe complications. Her father, Henry Michalke III, suffered a split aorta when he was 27 years old. He emerged from his surgery paralyzed from the diaphragm down. Further complications led to amputations.

He died in November 2013, one year before his daughter suffered her own split aorta and open heart surgery.

During the Pear Blossom Festival Scholarship Pageant, Shawntell Michalke spoke movingly about her father's dedication, determination and positive attitude. She has been involved in numerous activities and groups, including the Rogue Regional Medical Center junior volunteer program, Relay for Life, Festival of Trees and Operation Christmas Child.

Drake said her daughter is a compassionate, caring person.

In the days before her aorta split, Michalke had been experiencing numbness and tingling in one arm and her face. A doctor thought the symptoms were due to a viral infection that had been going around.

"The day after surgery, she said she was glad it wasn't the flu and she couldn't give it to anyone else. That's how Shawntell has been her whole life," Drake said.

Drake said her daughter always has confronted her medical problems straight on.

"She's never complained. She's always asking the doctors the hard questions. The answers are not easy things to hear. It's a horrible disease and she's seen the things it can do," Drake said. "She's said, 'It's OK, Mom. I'll get through this.'"

This holiday season, Drake and Michalke said they feel grateful Michalke was in the right place with the right people at the right time when her aorta split.

"This time of year, everyone thinks about what presents they'll get," Drake said. "This year, I'm just glad I have my daughter."

Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Shawntell Michalke maintains a positive attitude despite open-heart surgery last month. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
Shawntell Michalke was crowned Pear Blossom queen last April. Submitted photo