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With a Knitting Needle Piercing Her Heart, Keeping Cool Saved Ellin Klor's Life - Twice


Palo Alto woman's story a memorable lesson in survival

STANFORD, Calif. — Pick apart what happened to Ellin Klor on the front porch of a friend's house in 2006 and her miracle of survival reveals itself as a list of crucial moments-everything from her calm reaction to the shocking sight of a knitting needle sticking out of her chest to the easy availability of top-flight trauma surgeons at Stanford Hospital & Clinics. Then came another life-saving diagnosis, precipitated by her emergency care.

Klor tells her jaw-dropping story very calmly. It is a story of survival so remarkable it doesn't need to be trumpeted, but it offers memorable lessons on why some people survive terrible circumstances. Klor's survival story will be included in "Newsweek" magazine, an upcoming edition of ABC's 20/20 and in a new book, "The Survivors Club," by New York Times best-selling author Ben Sherwood. Sherwood found Klor when he attended, as research for his book, one of the Hospital's annual Trauma Survivor Reunions, organized by Stanford Trauma Center director David Spain, MD.

Sherwood's visit made sense: The Hospital has the only Level 1 trauma center for adults and children between San Jose and San Francisco. That status, awarded by the American College of Surgeons to recognize highly trained staff and sophisticated equipment, improves survival odds by 25 percent for people with the most grievous injuries.

Klor needed every bit of Stanford's expertise. She was in a rush that evening, late for a knitting circle meeting, her hands full of books and knitting bags, when she tripped and fell face forward with a thud. "I didn't know at first what had happened," she said. "When I got up I noticed I had a pain in my chest whenever I took a breath." As she peeled off her coat, then her sweater—and there it was: The broken end of a size 11, foot long wooden knitting needle, about the width of a drinking straw, sticking out of the center of her chest, right at heart level.

The odds were against her survival. Only two out of 10 people with penetrating injuries to the heart make it to the hospital alive. If they get that far, survival rates range from 40 percent to 70 percent. Klor is well aware that being less than 10 minutes away from Stanford and the Trauma Center made an important difference. "On a whole bunch of levels, I'm alive because of the excellent care I got at Stanford," she said. "They were just amazing."

But so was she. No blood was coming from her wound, and, as the daughter of a doctor, Klor had long before developed the ability to see injuries and remain calm. She was also a mother and a children's librarian "where you have to deal with stuff all the time," she said. She also knew that no one but a doctor should remove that knitting needle, despite the urgings of those around her.

Stanford trauma surgeons were amazed when Klor arrived. She was awake and alert and very calm, not exactly the standard state for someone with such an injury to the heart. Trauma surgeon Susan Brundage, MD, took charge of Klor's care. Carefully holding on to the knitting needle, the surgical team sawed through Klor's sternum and finally saw exactly what was going on. The needle had punctured the right ventricle of the heart, but again, the odds fell toward Klor's survival. Because the needle had remained in place, there was no blood pooling in and about the heart and it functioned as if nothing were wrong at all. Out came the needle and the team sewed up the 8mm laceration and then wired the sternum together again. Klor was home in a few days.

There was a part of her, Klor said, that had thought, once she was declared clear of her breast cancer in 1994, "that I didn't deserve any more." The accident, she said, showed her that, having survived it, she had more strength than she knew. And a few days after her return home, a Stanford radiologist called to say there was something suspicious about a lymph node captured in one of the CT scans done at the Hospital.

It was diagnosed as a new cancer, one treated earlier, ironically, because of Klor's near miss with death. But living through the knitting needle incident, "gave me the confidence that I would survive" the new cancer, too, Klor said. "I really think this has brought out the best person I am—or could be," she said.

That attitude of confidence and her gratitude for being alive is so visible in Klor that a woman stopped her a few months ago in the Stanford Cancer Center. "I didn't have any hair and I was wearing a beret and she said she could tell I was in chemo," Klor said. "But she said, 'You look so happy and so well I wanted to talk to you.'"

Now, Klor said, "I really work to be kind—I am so grateful for all the kindnesses that people everywhere showed to me, everyone I came in contact with."

What Brundage saw in Klor, and what Sherwood saw, too, was that staying calm is, perhaps, the most important behavior to survival. "You can't panic," Brundage said. "If you panic, it's all over. Look at what happened last week in that plane crash—people remained calm. That response is what saved them."

Sherwood has created a Web site, www.thesurvivorsclub.org, which features a video interview with Klor, now 58. "I hope it gives people hope," she said. "People can survive things and discover things about themselves they never knew."

About Stanford Health Care 

Stanford Health Care, located in Palo Alto, California with multiple facilities throughout the region, is internationally renowned for leading edge and coordinated care in cancer, neurosciences, cardiovascular medicine, surgery, organ transplant, medicine specialties and primary care. Stanford Health Care is part of Stanford Medicine, which includes Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford and the Stanford University School of Medicine. Throughout its history, Stanford has been at the forefront of discovery and innovation, as researchers and clinicians work together to improve health, alleviate suffering, and translate medical breakthroughs into better ways to deliver patient care. Stanford Health Care: Healing humanity through science and compassion, one patient at a time. For more information, visit: StanfordHospital.org.