Center Snapshot: Paula Rawles
Image above: Paula Rawles, secretary in the Vehicles Analysis Branch at NASA Langley, considers herself a "walking miracle" and many of her doctors would confirm that. She survived Leukemia, a stroke and a heart attack. She keeps her first defibrillator close by with her second, and stronger of the two, implanted in her chest. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Denise Lineberry
When Paula Rawles left NASA's Langley Research Center on a Friday in June of 2004, she never imagined that it would be about 2 1/2 years before she could return to work.
She went to a hospital because of a bad sinus infection and learned that she had leukemia, which had wiped out her bone marrow’s ability to produce white and red blood cells. Rawles had no immune system. Her bone marrow had turned to a sludge-like consistency. Had she not gone to a hospital, her sinus infection could have progressed into a more serious illness and killed her.
For her own safety, Rawles spent her first four weeks in isolation. She received many visitors, but none of them could hug her.
"That alone was killing me," Rawles said.
At the hospital, she became well known in the mailroom and to the staff. She received dozens of cards and letters. Her walls were covered with warm wishes from friends, co-workers, even strangers.
At the time, she worked as a secretary in what is now known as the Aeronautics Systems Analysis Branch. It was a tradition for her co-workers to bring their infants to work for her to hold them. Since that wasn’t possible in isolation, they sent photos of their growing children.
"The people out here at Langley are like family," she said. "They saw to it that I had all the leave I needed after I was enrolled in the leave donation program. I was able to pay all of my medical bills. The anonymous people who donated leave don’t realize what a valuable gift that was.
"If I knew who my donors were, I would give them the world. They don’t realize how their generosity helped with my healing, because I didn’t have to worry."
Her first six weeks in the hospital were only the beginning of health obstacles she would need to overcome.
The chemotherapy treatments for her leukemia, though necessary for survival, caused a clot in an artery. The next year, on Memorial Day of 2005, she suffered a stroke.
While recovering from her stroke at home, she woke up hungry at 5 a.m. and had a healthy snack. She sat in her living room and watched some television before returning to bed. She had some pains and laid across her bed, face down, and felt a stabbing pain through her chest. Rawles immediately sat up and had a horrible pain running down her left arm, which became paralized. She began to sweat profusely.
She pushed the button on her home security system and her emergency contacts, which included neighbors and sisters, quickly arrived to find her seated near the door to her porch in a chair, talking by phone to emergency responders.
Once at the hospital, a stent was surgically placed in an artery and she was immediately given Coumadin and Heparin to dissolve the clot.
When Rawles woke from surgery, a nurse asked, "Do you realize you saved your own life by recognizing what was happening and staying calm enough to get yourself some help?"
Rawles did a year of cardiac rehabilitation. During rehab, she took courses that taught her to watch everything she ate. She kept a food journal and learned how to read food labels to determine what was best for her heart health.
"A lot of companies, unfortunately, want to sell the product by putting 'low-sodium on the label," she said. "Sodium is salt and if you don't know to read a food label properly for both the nutritional value and the ingredients, you could do yourself more harm than good."
She learned to follow guidelines that included 5 percent or less daily value of sodium and 5 percent or less daily value for saturated fats.
With new knowledge, Rawles, a fan of cooking and the Food Network, challenged herself to make her meals healthier.
In 2006, she learned that she was a perfect candidate for a defibrillator. Rawles had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (AICD) put in her chest. Its primary function is to work as a defibrillator in case her heart stops. Its secondary function is to act as a pacemaker to get her heart back up to speed.
"It's a peace-of-mind thing," she said. "I was told by the surgeon that it’s like having an angel on one shoulder and a portable paramedic on the other."
It's been six years and the defibrillator has never gone off.
In September 2010, her sister, Denise, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. When they were ready to start Denise’s chemotherapy, she came to live with Rawles for nine months. Since Rawles had beaten cancer, she hoped her sister could do the same. But her sister passed away one week before Christmas of last year.
"That was hard for me to deal with," she said. "I felt like I had failed as her teacher."
Rawles considers herself a "walking miracle," and many of her doctors would confirm that.
She’s been a teacher to many.
"I tell people that neither cancer nor heart disease has to be a death sentence," she said. "And everything that has happened to me has helped my doctors get better at how they treat other patients."
At some point in the future, she's considering going into the medical field as an assistant or volunteer.
"I got my medical degree the hard way," Rawles said, laughing. "And it could have cost about the same as if I'd gone to college! Thank heaven for insurance!"
Rawles urges others to listen to their bodies, talk with their doctors openly, learn to manage stress, eat healthy, exercise and never take good health for granted.
"Also, be sure you have a good, strong support system, and prayer works," she added.
She'll continue to teach whenever opportunities arise.
"The conversations that I have with other cancer and heart patients … those are precious," she said. "They are where I was, and I’m where they want to be."
She reminds herself and others of a quote from a poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us."
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
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Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman