The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 28, 2014

Recovery called a ‘miracle’: 24-year-old suffered heart attack, stroke

Tom Lavis

JOHNSTOWN — About two months after Tim Michrina experienced a massive heart attack and paralyzing stroke, family and friends are calling his full recovery a miracle.

Michrina, 24, of Portage is the son of Alan Michrina and Ann Michrina, both of Portage. Tim, a senior at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, is an imposing figure, standing 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighing 240 pounds.

He was diagnosed five years ago with Marfan’s syndrome, a genetic disease that causes problems with his body’s connective tissues.

He had developed an aortic aneurysm and a malfunctioning heart valve.

Although Michrina had no prior knowledge of his condition, within 48 hours of the diagnosis he underwent his first open heart surgery to repair the aneurysm and replace the heart valve.

He was told he would be on blood thinners the rest of his life. However, if his medication isn’t monitored correctly, the mechanical valve will form clots.

Since that time, he has had a few medical issues, but nothing too extreme.

On Dec. 12, Tim learned he’d been cast in the leading role of Jesus in Mount Aloysius’ spring production of the musical “Godspell.”

The following day, he suffered a heart attack.

‘Terrifying ordeal’

“My blood thinning medication wasn’t at a therapeutic level and my heart valve formed a rather large clot,” Tim said. “It was the last day of the semester and I began to feel a terrible pain in my chest.”

He began to sweat, and pain began to shoot down his left arm. Through labored breaths, he was able to call 911.

Some of the staff of the college had been alerted by others present that something bad was happening.

“They all came to my aid so quickly and stayed with me until the ambulance arrived,” Tim said. “I just remember repeating over and over, ‘help, I need an ambulance.’ It was truly a terrifying ordeal.”

Tim was transported by ambulance to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown. Upon arrival there, he was assessed and then flown by Lifeflight helicopter to UPMC Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Tim underwent emergency double-bypass surgery that evening, an eight-hour procedure that concluded at about 2 a.m. Dec. 14. Shortly after he was taken into the cardiac critical care department to begin recovery, a nurse noticed some irregularities, including his having bitten through his respirator tube and not responding to stimulation on his left side.

Another surgery

Within a half-hour, Tim was taken to the hospital’s radiology department for an examination. An MRI revealed that a blood clot had entered the right hemisphere of his brain. Tim had suffered a stroke, which had caused complete paralysis of the left side of his body.

Just hours after Tim’s double bypass he was taken back into surgery, where a radiological team fed a line through his carotid artery into his brain, where as much as possible of the blood clot was dissolved and removed.

Tim’s father got a call at 5 a.m. to grant permission for the second surgery.

“When I arrived at the hospital, I could not detect any movement on his left side; he was paralyzed,” Alan Michrina said.

He and Tim’s uncle, Carl Schultz of Johnstown, along with Tim’s girlfriend, Mary Friend, were at his side almost constantly.

Tim’s brain surgeon met with the family following the surgery and told them that there was no way to determine if or how much of Tim’s faculties would be recovered or retained.

“All they would say is that Tim’s youth and strength were in his favor,” Schultz said.

The next day, Tim developed pneumonia.

He remained unconscious in the intensive care department for nine days. The only sign of activity Tim displayed was his resistance when the medical staff would attempt to wean him from his respirator.

After nine days, he woke up with tremendous pain shooting through his chest.

“I could barely talk after having a tube in there for so long,” he said. “A nurse came in and explained where I was and what had happened. I just rested my head against the bed and tried to hold back the tears.”

During those nine days, the only thing Tim could recollect were nightmares.

“I had vivid nightmares of being a prisoner chained to the floor and being tortured,” he said. “I also remember struggling with the breathing tubes and the feeding tube, which was by far the worst part.”

Regaining consciousness

On the morning of Dec. 22, Tim finally regained consciousness. Responding to stimulation, he began to interact appropriately with his nurses, moving his hands and feet on command, nodding, squeezing the hands of his nurses. His left side seemed sluggish, but there was movement. Going for broke, the medical staff decided to remove Tim’s respirator. 

When the respirator was removed, Tim asked for a drink of water. He then requested his cellphone.

The first person he called was his uncle Carl to tell him that he had a heart attack and stroke.

“He responded with, ‘I know’ and I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” Tim said. “I wanted to call everyone who I could think of to let them know that I was OK, and that I was slowly fighting my way back.”

Tim said the staff and surgeons at UPMC Shadyside Hospital were remarkable.

Although he was unconscious through most of the ordeal, Tim said they did a fantastic job in saving his life and he cannot thank them enough.

He was released from the intensive care unit on Christmas Day.

‘Complete recovery’

“That was probably the greatest Christmas present that anyone could hope for,” Tim said.

Two days later, he was transferred by ambulance to the Crichton Rehabilitation Center in the Lee Campus of Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.

When he was assessed upon admission at the Crichton Center, the medical staff wondered why he’d been transferred to a rehabilitation facility because he required no rehabilitation.

“As far as we can see, Tim has achieved a complete recovery from his heart attack, his bypass surgery, his stroke and his brain surgery,” Schultz said. “Even his doctors are not objecting to the use of the word ‘miracle.’ ”

Tim has been described as an overachiever by being an honor student with a 3.6 grade-point average, a musician, an actor and a writer.

Tim was at Crichton for four days and returned to college in time to begin his student teaching Jan. 31.

“That is my only assignment for this semester, but I was excited to get my life back on track,” he said.

Tim said he considers himself a spiritual person but not particularly religious. He was a little reluctant to call his recovery a miracle.

“I believe that ‘miracle’ is a word that is thrown around nowadays, and true miracles are quite rare,” he said. “But in my case, I suppose I do consider it a miracle.”

Thomas Foley, president of Mount Aloysius, said Tim’s illness was a great shock to the college community, but he is pleased to see how well Tim has progressed.

He said Tim, who is well known to him and across the college campus, is a real asset to the Mount Aloysius community.

“Tim is extremely bright, articulate, musically gifted, and he is generous with his time and talent,” Foley said. “Tim has met a life-changing adversity head-on, and will be an even better person for this experience.”

Tim is eager to star in “Godspell,” which runs March 20-23.

“My singing voice is a bit rusty, but I am hoping I could knock some of that rust off in time to give the best performance that I can,” he said.

He said his role of Jesus seems more fitting based on his recent experiences. He knew the outcome could have been  much different.

“I am blessed to be able to do these things, to walk, to talk, to breathe,” he said. “I have to make the most of these gifts; I have to make sure that this blessing is not wasted.”

Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on LavisTD.