Tonia’s Story — Heart Is Where Hope Is

By Matt Martin

Tonia Elrod is the epitome of success and hope.

The Procter & Gamble executive has worked hard to achieve great accomplishments in her career. She lives a happy life with her husband, Adam, and their three children—Caden, Gavin and Maley.

But on Feb. 2, 2019, her life would take a turn in a direction she could never have imagined.

Despite appearing healthy and active, the 45-year-old suffered a massive heart attack.

Tonia was finishing up a workout when all of a sudden, her arm started hurting. Her sons were there with her while Adam was taking Maley to ballet practice. When Adam got home, he saw his wife lying on the floor, unable to breathe.

Tonia went into cardiac arrest for the first of what would be five times. Adam called 911, pleading them to get EMS to their house as quickly as possible.

His wife was dying.

The 911 operator instructed Adam how to perform CPR. It would take paramedics 20 minutes to get Tonia stable before they got her into the ambulance. She was transported to University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

UC Health is home to the region’s only heart transplantation program and center of excellence for cardiac arrest and shock patients. The health system also routinely receives recognition from the American Heart Association for the quality of cardiac care, including for heart failure and heart attacks.

Tonia was diagnosed with heart failure—a shock to everyone who knew her. Until this life-changing event, she experienced no symptoms. The only indication: a family history of heart disease.

“Tonia’s case was no doubt rare—a younger, healthy patient experiencing acute heart failure,” said Louis Benson Louis IV, MD, chief of cardiac surgery at UC Medical Center. “We immediately put Tonia on life support. We were the first adult hospital in the Tristate to have this capability. Patients do not need to leave Cincinnati to receive life-saving care when they need it.”

Tonia’s heart, lungs and kidneys shut down. Doctors put her on a ventilator and put a stent in her heart. She was placed on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) device to do the work that her heart was unable to do.

Only minutes after leaving the hospital to pick up some things from home, Adam was called back because Tonia had gone into cardiac arrest again. He remained calm and collected through all of this—optimistic she would survive even when it seemed bleak.

“She was going to make it through this,” Adam said. “We were in the best place possible. If she was going to get better, this was the place for that to happen.”

After 48 hours, Tonia woke up, and her heart became strong enough to support her without life support. Clinicians and nurses continued to console Adam and the rest of Tonia’s friends and family during this challenging time. Friends and family helped to take care of the kids while Adam stayed by Tonia’s bedside every night for the two weeks she was there. Their community of friends and family even raised $7,000 in her honor for heart attack awareness.

Tonia’s care team at UC Health included Dr. Louis; David Feldman, MD, PhD, UC Health cardiologist and professor of cardiology at the UC College of Medicine; and Suzanne Bennett, MD, UC Health anesthesiologist and associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at the UC College of Medicine.

“Tonia’s bravery and fortitude should inspire others who may be going through a similar journey,” said Dr. Bennett, director of the EMCO program at UC Health. “She is truly giving hope to others.”

After leaving the hospital, Tonia did inpatient therapy for two weeks, and then four more months of outpatient therapy. There were days she was unable to stand and would get dressed on the floor. But she persevered with an incredible will to fully recover. Tonia approached it the same way she’s approached her successful career, with hard work and determination.

Tonia takes life a little slower than she used to but remains dedicated to her family, friends and her job.

She is appreciative for her care team at UC Health for giving her hope when all seemed lost.

“If it wasn’t for UC Health, I wouldn’t get to experience any more milestones and special moments with those in my life. If it wasn’t for UC Health, I wouldn’t be here,” Tonia said.

Tonia’s story is part of the “Discover Hope” project. To learn more, visit uchealth.com/discoverhope