Canyon High Spanish teacher Kelly Seidenkranz said on the morning of June 29, 2020, she began to feel a pain in her chest that she chalked up to stress. However, after posting her Spanish lesson online, exercising with her mom and taking her daughter to a horseback riding lesson, the pain had crescendoed.
“I told my son I needed heartburn medication,” said Seidenkranz, remembering back to that day. “I’ve since learned that even trained professionals have said they felt this same feeling like heartburn.”
Within a short while, her family realized it wasn’t an issue Tums could fix, after Seidenkranz fell to the floor on all fours in what she described as “excruciating pain.”
Her family immediately got her to the hospital and, as she entered the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital emergency room — saying goodbye to her family who had to wait to stand outside due to COVID-19 restrictions — she was informed that she was experiencing cardiac arrest.
Everything for the next two days then went black for Seidenkranz, who says she still can’t remember those next 48 hours. But she would be told both that she suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, and the doctors were baffled at her condition.
SCAD, a symptom that most commonly affects women in their 40s and 50s, occurred in her left main coronary artery, the main life-giving artery for the human heart, and in Seidenkranz’s case, the doctors found that the healthy female patient in front of them had experienced the entire artery collapse in on itself.
The collapse resulted in a near 100% loss of blood pressure through her heart, what is known as a STEMI heart attack, or a “widowmaker” as it’s commonly called.
“If you think of a tree, it’s kind of like how an artery is with branches; imagine having everything happen at the root of a trunk where everything starts,” said Dr. James Lee, medical director of the cardiac-cath lab and cardiac rehab program at Henry Mayo, who operated on the Canyon teacher. “So, if you have a tear occurring right at the origin of all left side circulation, most of the time the patients actually just die at home.”
Being that most patients die at home, few doctors have ever encountered a living patient experiencing this abnormality. Lee said he was among those doctors.
“I’ve done thousands of procedures in my career. I trained at a hospital in New York that does the most stent procedures in the United States. I did 1,200 procedures in one year,” said Lee. “And I’ve never seen a single case like this.”
“If she had presented to this hospital six or seven years ago, there would have been no chance of survival,” said Lee, adding that, upon being admitted, Seidenkranz was given a 20%-30% chance of surviving. That percentage would precipitously drop into the single digits as Lee and his team scrambled to keep Seidenkranz alive.
“If I had moved more than an inch or two, I could be dead,” said Seidenkranz. “But they were still able to transport me, keep the machine going that was keeping my heart working.”
Eventually, after a rollercoaster of up-and-down progress at UCLA, Seidenkranz would be told she would need a heart and kidney transplant, a double operation one day after the next because the heart failure she had experienced had significantly damaged her kidney. She would also be told only four other people in the world had suffered her level of a SCAD, and had survived to the transplant.
“I had technically died twice,” said Seidenkranz, adding that she had flatlined two separate times after the heart attack, with a defibrillator bringing her back each time. She added that she had accepted the possibility that she might die earlier in the process, but that if she survived, she would remember to think on the big scheme of things and not those things that don’t matter.
After a successful heart transplant on Aug. 5 and successful kidney transplant on Aug. 6, Seidenkranz would eventually be discharged from the hospital and sent to a rehab clinic to learn how to walk once again after 62 days in a hospital bed.
In total she would spend 77 days in medical rooms, and after she returned home in September of last year, she took her recovery day-by-day, she said. Two steps here, two steps there, setting her goal at standing up on her own.
And approximately 377 days after her heart transplant, her family, colleagues and doctor celebrated her recovery.
“It was disbelief, like there’s no way,” said Vicki Goodwin, a 21-year teaching colleague of Seidenkranz, as well as a former student. “You can’t imagine something so horrific happening to someone so good.”
Her family, teachers at her school, and even people around the community prayed for her recovery, Seidenkranz said. Goodwin said meals and support were brought to the family, and seeing her on Thursday — after only seeing her one time before at her son’s graduation — was monumental to the staff.
“She got a standing ovation,” said Goodwin when recounting her friend’s first campus staff meeting back Thursday. “She’s just kind of a walking miracle.
“She’s the heart of Canyon High School,” Goodwin added.
“The news of Kelly’s illness hit the staff and students of Canyon High School like a sledgehammer,” said Canyon High Principal Shellie Holcombe. “There was not a person on this campus that wasn’t sick with worry, frightened, and desperate to help her and her family. We are thrilled and honored to have her back with us.”
“When you look at her, see what she looks like, and then she tells you what she went through, she doesn’t look like someone who went through all that,” said Lee. “That’s what’s amazing,
Seidenkranz said she wanted to come back to inspire her students.
“Life is different,” said Seidenkranz while sitting in her classroom for the first time since March of last year. “I love teaching. I love being around students…I’m excited because I feel like I have so much more passion for life now.”
“I’ve always thought as a teacher that there’s a platform to inspire kids,” she said.
However, before ending the anniversary interview, she turned to the family whose loved one gave her the organs, the ones she wrote to thank.
“I think about the family that lost somebody tragically,” said Seidenkranz, becoming emotional for one of the first time in the interview. “I’m alive because of that, and I would love to be able to thank them one day, in person.”
Seidenkranz plans to present her full testimony in person at The Sanctuary Church, located at 26444 Friendly Valley Parkway, on Sunday at both the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. service. She has invited the public to attend.