‘She’s going to die’: A woman needs a critical surgery at UW Health. Her family says there’s no beds.

Holly J Arnold
Holly J Arnold, photos courtesy of family

8pm update: Late Monday evening, after this story aired, family told News 3 that doctors provided an unexpected update: Holly had improved slightly; she is far from out of the woods, but potentially could survive right now without the Madison-area surgery doctors had previously deemed urgent. 

MADISON, Wis. — A Flight for Life helicopter is ready to go, family members said, and a UW Health specialist team told doctors at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee that they would do a risky surgery that no other hospital in the region would attempt.

But amid a statewide hospital bed shortage crisis, Holly Arnold of West Allis, 64, is still waiting–on the cusp of life.

UW Health, a spokesperson said, is forced to decline most transfer requests every day right now as they battle a COVID-19 surge amid a lack of beds and staff.

RELATED: ‘Trying to keep our heads above water’: Inside the hospital bed crisis in rural Wisconsin

Holly’s son Chris Dixon, 43, is close with his mom, and has helped support Holly for years. Among other health conditions, he says a blood clot near her heart almost killed her three years ago, when it partially blocked her intestines and St. Luke’s doctors had to perform surgery to remove some of the blockage. The clot didn’t go away, but she remained stable after her near-brush with death–until this Christmas, his birthday.

He called 911 shortly before Christmas when she was having trouble breathing and had a panic attack. Paramedics came, said it wasn’t a heart attack, and said the hospitals were crowded and that they should just call Holly’s primary care physician.

“We decided to just keep her home,” Chris said. After her stint with emergency surgeries three years ago, she’s scared of hospitals now, he said. But then, on Christmas Day, he had to call 911 again.

“She was having stomach pains, she couldn’t breathe, she was just in so much pain. They took her to St. Luke’s in Milwaukee; they kept her there for five days,” Chris said. At the hospital, she also tested positive for COVID-19–which confused the family, since she’d had it before, was fully vaccinated, and no one else in the house had it. She tested negative days later, but problems persisted–just one day after the hospital discharged her.

On New Years Eve, she started screaming in pain, Chris said. She couldn’t breathe. Back at St. Luke’s, Chris said doctors dug into the issue a bit more–and discovered the blood clot had grown. It is now blocking her blood flow to her intestines, and doctors told the family that she wouldn’t make it if something wasn’t done.

A spokesperson for Advocate Aurora declined comment on the story. Chris spoke to News 3 along with Holly’s husband, and were willing to sign waivers that would clear the way for hospitals to answer media questions that are otherwise protected by health privacy laws. Neither UW Health nor St. Luke’s sent the needed forms, but Chris relayed information that his mother’s care team at St. Luke’s gave the family.

“They can’t operate on the cause of these problems, because it’s by the heart,” Chris said. “They need a team of specialists that only UW (Health) has or is able to operate on her. Milwaukee can’t; two of the main hospitals in Milwaukee don’t want to do it, it’s too risky. Chicago doesn’t want to do it, either.”

Holly is waiting in the surgical ICU at St. Luke’s, Chris said. Each day, doctors there ask to transfer her to UW Health for the procedure. So far, for three days now, UW Health can’t accept the transfer, citing a lack of beds.

“Every day, it’s the same thing. ‘We’re waiting on a room to open up’,” he explained. “I just don’t understand. She’s going to die here because they can’t get her in.” Doctors don’t know how long she’ll last without the procedure.

“St. Luke’s has Flight for Life ready to take her there. Everything is set up. The team of doctors is willing to operate on her and willing to take her. But UW just doesn’t have any beds available.”

While UW Health declined an interview Monday to answer questions about how they are triaging patients right now, they pointed to their most recent statement warning they were reaching capacity as a system. Last week, chief quality officer Dr. Jeff Pothof told News 3 that some patients may miss out on treatment as a result.

RELATED: ‘There’s no more staff’: Wisconsin hospitals in crisis mode as pandemic fatigue drives staff away

“As much as we want to help everyone, as much as we’ve moved everything around, and as much as our staff are working way more than we ever should ask them to work, it may not work out that when you need a health care resource, it’s available for you,” Dr. Pothof said.

A spokesperson wouldn’t comment on Holly’s case, but said they were declining the majority of the “many, daily transfer requests” they are receiving currently, and fear that trend will get worse.

“UW Health leaders and experts are also constantly assessing capacity, staffing, and patient needs,” Sara Benzel said in a statement. “We have limited the non-essential surgeries and procedures and are evaluating the volume and types of surgeries to schedule within a given time period to ensure capacity and staffing levels for patient volumes are management. Unfortunately, requests for transfer sometimes outpace capacity and we are worried this trend will worsen with a worsening COVID-19 surge in cases and hospitalizations.”

On Monday, the Wisconsin Hospital Association COVID dashboard reported about 4% of ICU beds open in the state, with more than 1,900 patients hospitalized across Wisconsin for COVID-19. The surge in Wisconsin has been building for weeks; bed shortages are being driven by both a rise in COVID hospitalizations and a staffing shortage.

Monday, Advocate Aurora Health said they had hit an all-time high in COVID-19 patients across their system. They’ve closed three Milwaukee-area urgent care facilities to help staff in the hospitals. The vast majority of COVID-19 patients across the state aren’t vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services and the WHA.

Chris wonders where his mother would be now, if more people had taken the shot in Wisconsin.

“If more people were vaccinated, and responsible about masks and socially distancing, this may not be an issue,” he stated. He tears up as he talks about his mom: “It sucks.”

She cares for everyone. She spends hours on the phone helping people who called her wanting to talk about their problems. She’s one of the most important people in his life–and so many others. It’s hard to think about a future without her, and he won’t stop fighting for her survival.

“Without it she’s going to die, and they’re just leaving her to sit there.”