Karen Schiltz at her workplace, Classic Gardens
In 2003, Karen Schiltz had her whole life ahead of her. A young mom and professional, she was looking forward to starting her career as a freelance graphic designer and watching her three young kids grow up. She had no idea her life – and her dream – would soon be at risk.
Karen had set up a cozy office that was all her own in the basement of her Vegreville home where she could work while watching her children laughing and playing next to her.
A few months after settling into this routine, Karen began to feel slightly unwell – like she had a lingering cold she just couldn’t shake. Although Karen has had asthma for many years, she was young and had no reason to believe anything was seriously wrong.
“I thought I was pretty invincible, to be honest,” says Karen.
What she didn’t know at the time was the industrial fan in her basement had been blowing black mold spores into the air where she had been working and watching her kids. Breathing in those spores can be hazardous for anyone, but potentially deadly for someone with asthma.
And in one moment, everything changed.
It was a hot summer afternoon – the kind of afternoon that made Karen glad for the welcome relief of her cool basement office – when she suddenly felt like she was quickly running out of air. Panicking, she tried calling her husband on the phone for help but couldn’t get in touch with him.
“My health was declining rapidly, faster than I've ever had an asthma attack before,” says Karen. “I thought, ‘Okay, I've probably got just enough energy to make it up the basement stairs.’ When I got to the top of the stairs, I just yelled out the door into the backyard.”
By chance, Karen’s brother-in-law had come over with a friend that day to borrow some tools, and thankfully, they were close enough to hear Karen’s cry for help.
Karen’s brother-in-law stayed with her kids while his friend quickly rushed Karen to Covenant Health’s St. Joseph’s General Hospital in Vegreville. The doctor treating her immediately recognized how dire Karen’s situation was. He called STARS Air Ambulance to bring Karen to where she would receive the specialized care she urgently needed to save her life.
“I felt like I was actually going to die – it was terrifying,” Karen admits.
The flight team put Karen in an induced coma and inserted a breathing tube while they transported her to Covenant Health’s Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton. There, specialists in the emergency department provided Karen with the life-saving treatment she needed.
It was disorienting and upsetting for Karen to wake up from her induced coma in a bed in the intensive care unit a few days later, thinking it was still the same day as her asthma attack. What made her experience less terrifying was the compassionate hospital staff at the Grey Nuns who provided Karen with exceptional care and took the time to gently reassure her when she was feeling scared and vulnerable.
“The doctors and nurses came in right away and explained to me what had happened,” says Karen. “I didn’t even have to do any talking because they explained everything and told me I’d be okay – they were taking care of me.”
Caring for the whole family
Karen had come so close to missing out on everything she had planned for her life, but all that mattered to her in that moment was finding out how her family was doing. She was grateful to hear that the compassionate care she received from the Grey Nuns team had been extended to her loved ones as well.
“The last person you're thinking about in that situation is yourself,” explains Karen. “My family was so impressed with my care and they felt like the staff at the Grey Nuns would go the extra mile to help. It wasn’t just me being cared for; my family felt like they were also being taken care of. That mattered more to me than anything.”
After a few weeks in the hospital under the care of the Grey Nuns team, Karen made a full recovery. Looking back on that experience nearly 20 years later, Karen is even more appreciative of the compassionate treatment both she and her family members received.
“In that kind of stressful situation, the care and compassion we received was one less thing to worry about,” she says.
Holistic care – body, mind and soul
The wellbeing of her family has always been Karen’s first concern, and this was not the first time they had relied on Covenant’s exceptional healthcare teams. She’s grateful Covenant hospitals have been there for her and her family time and time again in those moments that mattered most, including when she had all three of her children via C-section at Covenant Health’s Misericordia Community Hospital.
She remembers each of those experiences positively, too. From the doctor who took the time to get to know her personally while taking her vitals, to the baby snugglers who looked after her newborns while she got some much-needed rest, Karen recalls feeling like she and her babies were in great hands each time.
More recently, Karen says her mom, who is a retired nurse, echoed Karen’s feelings about the high quality of care at the Misericordia. Dawn experienced it for herself while receiving treatment related to a fall.
“The first thing my mom said was, ‘Karen, the care I got at the Misericordia was the best I've ever had,’” recalls Karen. “She couldn't stop talking about how the staff made her feel like her feelings came first above anything else. She knew that there were lots of other patients in there, but she felt like she was the star patient.”
As someone who has experienced a wide range of care levels while being treated for her asthma at many different hospitals over the years, Karen believes it’s the holistic and personalized care – body, mind and soul – that sets Covenant hospitals apart from the rest.
“In Covenant hospitals, you feel like you’re getting individual care,” Karen says. “People aren’t robots – we have emotions, too. The healthcare workers can fix the parts of your body, but that compassionate care aspect is really important to have as well.”
And recently, it’s a big part of why Karen was excited to be involved in a fundraising campaign her employer launched in support of the Misericordia and Grey Nuns hospitals.
Giving back and paying it forward
Over the summer, Classic Gardens, a local gardening and landscaping company, encouraged customers to help grow care for their local Covenant Health hospitals through a donation online or in store while shopping for supplies to grow their home gardens. The #GrowingCare campaign raised over $7,000 in support of the greatest needs at the Misericordia and Grey Nuns, helping to fund specialized hospital equipment and programs, and enhanced care spaces.
As part of the campaign, anyone who donated was given a green paper heart on which they could write the name of a loved one and hang it on the Tree of Life located inside the store. By the end of the campaign, the tree was filled to the tips of its branches with hearts – many of which were dedicated to loved ones who had received care at one of the Covenant hospitals.
Karen helped coordinate the campaign and even donated herself. She explains she was thrilled to support the hospitals that were there for her and her family in their moments of greatest need.
“It was amazing to see the tree getting filled up with green hearts,” says Karen. “It's life or death for some people, so it was a pleasure to be able to donate and help with the fundraising to give the hospitals enhancements that go the extra mile for compassionate care. The campaign didn’t just raise funds, it also reminded the community that we all have people in our lives who have needed and will continue to need these services.”
Thousands of beautiful moments
Karen’s life-threatening asthma attack gave her a firsthand understanding of what it means for a single moment to turn into a life-or-death situation. She knows the care she received at the Grey Nuns gave her a second chance to watch her children grow up.
“It would have been a matter of one asthma attack that would have changed so many people's lives,” she says. “I never thought that I would have needed critical care, but thanks to the healthcare workers, fundraisers and donors, my life was saved.”
Because of that donor-supported, life-saving care, Karen has enjoyed thousands of beautiful moments with her family over the last 20 years.
“The experience really did change my perspective on how fragile life is and reminded me to just enjoy it,” says Karen. “I have enjoyed it all and my family spends a lot of time together whenever we can because you just never know. I’m so grateful for the care my family and I received at St. Joseph’s, the Grey Nuns and the Misericordia when we needed it most.”
Karen holds one of the green hearts from the Classic Gardens campaign she helped organize in support of the Misericordia and Grey Nuns hospitals.
In honour of Karen’s son, Erick Schiltz
Story update: Shortly after this interview, Karen experienced the tragic loss of her 24-year-old son, Erick.
In remembering her cherished son, Karen shared: “Erick had a generous soul, strong convictions and a quirky sense of humor. He loved his family deeply and always made sure no one left without getting a hug and an ‘I love you!’”
Although there is nothing that will ever completely fill the void created by the loss of her beloved son, Karen is comforted in knowing Erick spent his whole life surrounded by a supportive family and with his mother who was here to love him dearly.
“We never knew his life would be cut so short, but because my life was saved, I was given more time with him,” shares Karen. “That is the most precious thing to me right now.”
Erick Schiltz, Karen's beloved son.
Written by: Kate Dawson
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