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Martina’s story: from staff to patient and back again

September 18, 2023

Santangelo family

Martina with her husband and children, Andrew and Stephanie, on Stephanie’s wedding day.

As a teenager, Martina Santangelo had decided to pursue nursing as her career. During her final year of high school, she applied to the two-year program. While waiting to hear about admission she - on a whim - decided to enrol in Herzig Institute’s Medical Administration program. It was a shorter program - only nine months - so she thought she’d complete it, and then pursue nursing. While in the program Mount Sinai Hospital’s Dr. Allan Gross advertised needing a medical secretary for his orthopedic surgery office. Twelve candidates from the program went for the interview, and Martina got the job. Today she is still a proud Sinai Health employee, but that’s not Martina’s only affiliation with Sinai Health. Martina is also a Sinai Health patient and credits her being alive today to the incredible care she received at Mount Sinai Hospital.

In 1986, at 22 years old, Martina got married. The following year she and her husband bought a house on September 22 - the very same day she found out she was pregnant with their first child. The pregnancy went well, she was active and careful with her diet, trying to look after both her and her unborn baby. At 23 weeks pregnant and while at work one day, she suddenly experienced horrific back pain. Running to the bathroom she discovered she was bleeding profusely. Scared and unsure of what to do, she called for the other women in Dr. Gross’ office to come and help her. They got a wheelchair and wheeled her to the OB area at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Once there Martina was quickly wheeled into a room, hooked up to monitors, and suddenly found herself in labour. The hospital staff called her husband, who showed up looking worried and said, “Martina, we’re not supposed to have the baby until May!” Sent for an ultrasound, Martina’s contractions intensified during the procedure. She told the technician she was experiencing extreme back pain and they rushed her back to her patient room. They hooked her up to morphine to calm her uterus and told her that she was now a high-risk pregnancy. Her baby - a little girl, they learned - would have extremely low chances of surviving if she was born that day. If she did survive, she would likely be plagued by serious health issues for the duration of her life.

As a devout Catholic, Martina turned to her faith, alongside her determination, to get through this tough moment. Grasping her rosary which was always with her, she was determined not to cry but to learn what she had to do to protect her baby. Martina was admitted to the hospital’s high risk pregnancy unit, under strict bedrest orders. She had to stop working much earlier than she and her husband had anticipated, and her doctors diagnosed her as having a placental abruption, which is when the placenta breaks away from the uterine wall, either completely or partially, and triggers labour because the baby is not getting enough oxygen. Martina experienced a partial abruption.

After three weeks in the hospital she was discharged to her home, under strict bedrest orders, and was told she could only leave her bed to use the washroom. Her husband had to keep working, so Martina relied on her grandparents, parents, and neighbours to help her. Her grandfather would bring her lunch every day, and her elderly neighbour would come over every morning to watch over her and keep her company. One evening, when her mother was dropping off dinner, she suggested they take Martina outside to the front porch just to let her get some fresh air and see the beautiful spring day outside. Martina agreed, but within minutes of being up and walking she started to feel some light contractions, so she hastily retreated to her bed.

One morning Martina woke up and started screaming in pain. Back to Mount Sinai she went, to learn that the baby’s head had turned and was trapped in her pelvis. She spent another week in the hospital, under the protective care of Mount Sinai’s nurses and doctors, as they waited for the baby to rotate herself into a better position. The nurses and doctors knew that Martina’s faith was devout and during this time they arranged for her to attend church service in a wheelchair on Easter, because it was an important day for her.

After being discharged to her house again, Martina allowed herself to feel some optimism that she was getting closer to her due date, which meant a better chance for her baby girl to survive. And then, early in the morning on May 12, Martina’s water broke. She paged Dr. Marshall Barkin, her OB, and he met them at the hospital at 7 am. After an examination, Dr. Barkin told her she was only 1 cm dilated. Then he told her that because of everything she had been through, he recommended induction to quicken her labour and get her daughter out into the world.

Martina’s labour progressed quickly, from the induction at 9am to her daughter, Stephanie Rose, being born at 4pm. Martina says “I remember my husband was holding this tiny little baby with the most beautiful strawberry blonde hair. I was in so much pain because my epidural hadn’t worked, and Stephanie had been born facing down, necessitating a level four episiotomy. The doctors were trying to suture me, and despite the freezing they had given me, I just kept telling everyone I was in a lot of pain.”

The pain was caused by Martina’s placenta not having been delivered, so Dr. Barkin had to reach into Martina’s uterus and manually retrieve it. Martina said “The pain was so intense; I can’t even articulate it. I didn’t scream, as most women do. I didn’t cry or pass out. But I started having visions.”

After Dr. Barkin removed her placenta, Martina began to hemorrhage. “I heard the nurses talking about needing blood, and I heard them call the operating room. I heard them tell my husband he had to stay in the corner, but I didn’t know what was happening. I was in so much pain, and I was convinced I was dying or at the very least I was going to have a hysterectomy.”

Unable to move her to the operating room for fear she wouldn’t survive the trip, the doctors cauterized her, did a D&C, and packed her uterus full of gauze, all in an attempt to stop the bleeding. But despite a difficult few hours, Martina, and her daughter Stephanie, both survived.

A couple of years after Stephanie’s birth, Martina went to see Dr. Barkin. She and her husband weren’t having any luck getting pregnant again, and she was worried. Dr. Barkin said as a result of the procedures and trauma she went through, her body might just not be interested in conceiving again. Martina was heartbroken, but made peace with being a triangle family, and having one beautiful, healthy daughter.

When Stephanie was five, Martina and her husband took her to Disney World. While there, Martina began to experience symptoms that she remembered from her pregnancy with Stephanie. While there, she took a pregnancy test and discovered, to her shock and delight, that she was pregnant again.

She was put on bedrest again in her second pregnancy, after experiencing a small bleed, but she was never admitted to hospital and was able to carry this second pregnancy to term.

“I’ll never forget the day Andrew was born. It was May 5, so exactly a week before Stephanie’s birthday. And Dr. Barkin had told me they were going to induce me, given my history. When I came into the labour room, it was packed full of people. So many nurses, an anesthesiologist, a perinatologist, specialists I couldn’t even identify. I just looked at Dr. Barkin with confusion, why are all these people here, and he said to me, “Martina, we’re not letting the same thing happen to you again. We are prepared for ANYTHING this time round.”

Another quick labour followed her induction, and her son Andrew was born at 1 pm, with no complications. Martina recalls, “Andrew was such a big baby! He was 9 lbs, 15 oz, and all these nurses and doctors kept dropping by room, just to see this beautiful, big, 10 lb baby boy!” Following the labour Martina’s hemoglobin levels dropped quite low, so she and Andrew were kept in the hospital for a few days but were discharged without further complications.

Today, Martina’s kids are 35 and 29, both happy and healthy. Martina tells them, “You’re the only two who know the sound of my heartbeat,” and she credits all of them being healthy and alive today to Mount Sinai Hospital’s team. “I thank this hospital from the bottom of my heart. The knowledge, the professionalism, and the care. From everyone! The high-risk pregnancy team, the NICU team, just everyone who cared for me, I knew I was in the right place to be looked after.”

On July 11, 2023, Martina celebrated 40 years as the Clinical Secretary for Dr. Allan Gross, a renowned orthopedic surgeon who was awarded the Order of Canada for his pioneering work.


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