Dana’s near death experience

Dana Scammon

Dana Scammon nearly died last year. She’s still dealing with the aftermath of what happened. I know her mother Denise and asked if she’d see if Dana would let me interview her for a blog post. I thought there might be some lessons she had learned from her experience that could help someone else. Dana said yes. And then she caught me off guard when she told me about her most important lesson.

I’m not quite sure where to begin her story — I think maybe somewhere in the middle. At about 1: 30 a.m. on July 17, 2018, she called her mother because she was having trouble breathing. She’d been under treatment for bronchitis, but Denise was alarmed by how she sounded and called for an ambulance. Dana thought it would be a quick trip to the ER. She had no idea how sick she really was.

When I got there, I was pretty much unconscious. I had about a dime size amount of air left between both of my lungs. I had pneumonia. They had to pump me full of fluids I was so dehydrated and malnourished. I was really out of it for the first week. I was pretty much in what they used to call a drug-induced coma. Basically, that’s what they had to do to keep me alive. My organs were shutting down so they had to put me on vasopressors, which in a sense, cut off circulation to your legs and your arms and just keep your vital organs alive. That’s how bad the pneumonia was.

Dana Scammon

Dana in the hospital

The infection wasn’t confined to Dana’s lungs. It had spread into her bloodstream and her organs were shutting down because her body was in septic shock.

The night I arrived, doctors told my mother that I probably wouldn’t be alive in the morning. At some point, they asked my parents if they wanted to pull the plug and my parents said no, don’t, not yet. And within a few hours, I came to.

She came to but had a fierce battle ahead of her. The four vasopressors she was on were her only chance of surviving the massive infection. That’s a lot for someone her size. She only weighed about 89 pounds at the time. She was also being treated with IV fluids, antibiotics, and other medications. When she started to “wake up” about a week after she was admitted, Dana still had trouble breathing on her own.

They were saying they wanted to do a tracheotomy and I was stubborn — not realizing I was dying. My mom just looked at me and said you know, this is life or death, it’s yes or no. No, you’re dying. Yes, do this and save your life. And I was literally like a 16-year-old child. I rolled my eyes and said fine. They gave me a tracheotomy so I could breathe. That’s when it hit me — holy shit, this is real.

Dana could breathe again, but she wasn’t out of the woods. The vasopressors drastically lowered the blood flow to her extremities, pushing it mainly to her organs, her heart, and her brain to keep them alive. Once she was well enough to be off them, she noticed that her toes began to look as if they were bruised.

It just kept getting worse and worse and worse and my hands, fingertips had a little bit of that as well. But those started to kind of go away, so I figured my feet would too — I was like, come on guys, wake up, but my feet just never, never healed.

Because they hadn’t been getting enough blood, all of Dana’s toes developed gangrene. There was nothing that could be done to save them. At first, doctors thought they would need to amputate half of at least one foot, but in the end, the surgeon did her best to save what tissue she could.

Dana in rehab
Learning how to stand and walk without toes

Dana lost most of both big toes, especially on her right foot and about half of all her other toes. She says she used to run 10 miles a day. Post surgery, she couldn’t even walk. She spent 45 days in the hospital and was finally discharged to a rehab facility where she spent two weeks beginning to learn how to walk again.

When I got there I was still using a wheelchair, being pushed around. Then I forced myself to use a walker and it was about half and half. I’d hustle and wheel myself somewhere, but then I’d get up and walk. Walk like I was 97 years old.

A visit from her brother while still in rehab

Walking without toes still isn’t easy, but it’s easier. Dana’s goal is to run again someday. The hardest thing she has to endure is constant pain.

It’s like having a rubber band tied around your toes, trying to squeeze your foot down into a shoe that’s two sizes too small, setting it on fire and having it run over. It’s really that bad. And it’s every second of every day.

The pain is because of nerve damage. She takes a medication to deal with the issue, but takes no other, not even for the pain — which leads me to the biggest lesson Dana learned, She faced the fact that she had a serious drinking problem and that’s why she got into trouble in the first place.

It’s not that I got sick because of drinking, it was because I was too stubborn to admit I was sick because I didn’t want to go to the hospital. Every year I get bronchitis. This time, I did tell my mom I’d see the doctor. Sure enough they said I had bronchitis, gave me an antibiotic and an inhaler. I thought I was good to go back to drinking, but after a month, my cough and my lungs weren’t feeling any better.

She went back to see the doctor and was told she needed to go to the hospital. She refused and two weeks later was near death. As her body began to heal from the infection and the amputations, she came to realize that she no longer had the urge to grab her drink of choice, beer.

I hate to say it but I kind of got a twofer. I got really sick and lost my toes, but the medications they gave me for the pneumonia were basically the same medicines they give patients when they go to detox. It was kind of a blessing in a way because I got sober. I can say that I was an alcoholic for sure and it’s just not the same at all. I don’t have a craving, I don’t hide it, it’s not the same. I have nothing to hide anymore.

Nothing to hide anymore, which is why Dana decided to tell her story. The whole story. Maybe someone else with a drinking problem will read it and turn his or her life around before something drastic happens.

I was just so dumb and drunk all the time that I didn’t care. I only wanted to drink and be happy. I hope people can see that you can get past drinking. I just want them to know that there’s going to be a better day. You may have a really great day and it might backfire and you have a really bad day. You may feel like punching someone or something. It’s going to be a battle, but keep fighting. Things get better, the next day is going to be amazing. Just keep going forward.

Dana’s mother is proud of her daughter’s progress and cautiously optimistic as she continues to recover from both illnesses — pneumonia and alcoholism.

A spot of pneumonia is persistently hanging on in one lung eight months after Dana’s early morning rush to the emergency room because she couldn’t breathe. She is learning to balance living a satisfying life with being careful to not relapse into a life of measured medications and trauma. She is very appreciative of each day she is able to breathe on her own.

Denise Scammon.

Living with Dana website header

Dana, who is 37, used to work in the sales department at Turner Publishing in Maine and before that, was in retail, jobs she’s not able to do right now. Determined to move on with her life and earn a living she has created a website and blog called Living with Dana. Among other things, she chronicles her illness in more detail than I have given here. This is an excerpt from her most recent post:

As you can see, I’ve been through hell and fought my way back! Life lesson learned, the hard way! It has made me appreciate the little things in life and I’m grateful for them all! I always knew I was strong, but this just made me stronger! A HUGE price to pay, but I am still here and ready for my new adventures!

Dana Scammon

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.