A Battle with Legionnaires’ and a Legion of Heroes: Laurie Shipley’s Story

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(From left to right) MICU nurse Youngmi Fazio, Laurie Shipley and RT Christy Alexander

Few people would ever want to remember a months-long hospital stay and a brush with death. But you’d believe Laurie Shipley when she says her battle with Legionnaires’ Disease was “the best thing that ever happened” to her. And it has forever changed her life.

Not the flu
Laurie came to St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor on a November day in 2013, with what she thought were flu symptoms. When she collapsed in the hospital elevator, it became clear her illness was much more serious and potentially deadly. A chest x-ray showed she had Legionnaires’ Disease. Laurie was admitted immediately to the MICU on 6 North for treatment. She was in a coma and on a ventilator.

Bedside prayers
In the days and nights that followed, Laurie’s room was a revolving door of doctors, respiratory therapists and nurses. Laurie’s daughters, Tammy and Dana, remember two people in particular who provided comfort in all the chaos – a respiratory therapist, Christy Alexander, and a MICU nurse, Youngmi Fazio.

Christy spent 16-hour nights at Laurie’s bedside, checking for the slightest signs of improvement, making it her daily duty to report to family members.

Youngmi provided not only physical but also spiritual care. She prayed and talked to Laurie every time she entered the room, hoping Laurie could hear, even in slumber.

“I felt very close to her,” Youngmi said.

One night, when nurses thought Laurie was taking a turn for the worse, Youngmi repeated over and over, “You don’t do this to your friends, Laurie.” Laurie said she heard those words, and they encouraged her to hang on.

Laurie finally regained consciousness after more than two weeks. By then her family had celebrated Thanksgiving in the hospital, and were eager to have Laurie back home.

Laurie knew her recovery was nothing short of a miracle. Before getting discharged, she got to meet many of the staff who took care of her, but not the woman whose prayers she had heard every day. Though she remembered Youngmi’s voice, she had never seen her face. Every time Laurie came back to St. Joe’s she hoped to meet her. Their paths never crossed, until nearly three years later.

“I heard you every day.”
It took a long-lost friend to help Laurie find that missing puzzle piece.

In early August 2016, Laurie found herself back at St. Joe’s for a procedure. Her daughters Tammy and Dana accompanied her, and they were spotted and instantly recognized by Wendy Wagner, a family friend they hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.

During the impromptu reunion, Laurie’s family learned Wendy was now the manager of respiratory care at St. Joe’s, and Wendy learned about Laurie’s bout with Legionnaires’ and the great care she received in her department.

“Laurie couldn’t say enough wonderful things about Christy and Youngmi and the rest of the staff that cared for her then and now,” Wendy wrote in an email to St. Joe’s patient engagement team. “I’m not sure if Youngmi ever knew just how much her daily prayers, encouragement and singing meant to Laurie, even when she was sedated and on the ventilator,” she added.

A few weeks later, Wendy helped coordinate a reunion for Laurie, Christy and Youngmi on the same floor Laurie had spent weeks fighting for her life.

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Laurie Shipley (left) and Youngmi Fazio share an embrace on Sept. 7, 2016, meeting for the first time since Laurie’s hospitalization in 2013.

Hugging and gripping their hands, Laurie thanked her caretakers for their dedication.

“I had the best care ever,” Laurie said. “I heard you every day,” she told Youngmi.

Youngmi said Laurie confirmed what she always knew – that even the unconscious can hear and listen, and that words of encouragement and prayer are sometimes just as effective as medicine.

“There’s a whole person in there. As medical staff, we all need to be careful what we’re saying,” Youngmi said.

Laurie said Youngmi’s words and prayers had a profound impact on her and the way she wants to live the rest of her life.

Beyond physical recovery
Laurie is fully recovered and back at her job as manager at Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers, where for more than 30 years she has served people recovering from brain and spinal cord injuries. She said the compassionate care she received as a patient gave her new empathy for others recovering from injury and disease.

“Time is precious and life is precious,” Laurie said. And she credits the team at St. Joe’s for helping her realize that.

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