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Hometown Heroes

LaVelle Underhill’s far-reaching search for a solution to her mysterious medical problem ended where it started — close to home.
Published on 2/24/2014
Author: by Mark Adams
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LaVelle Underhill’s journey to find the critical healthcare services she needed was a long and winding road that ended up almost in her backyard — within a few miles of her Dufur home, at Mid-Columbia Medical Center.

Plagued by chronic stomach pain for years, Underhill first sought relief from a Portland specialist.
“I went to Portland just because I didn’t think anyone in The Dalles would be able to help me,” she says. She would soon regret making that assumption.

After the first physician couldn’t find a problem, Underhill visited three more Portland specialists. They performed myriad tests, including a colonoscopy, and found no obvious problems.

At the end of that ordeal, she was given the good news that she didn’t have stomach cancer, but that did nothing to alleviate the severe chronic pain that persisted.The last doctor she visited in Portland gave her a prescription for a strong painkiller and advised her to, “Use your mind to tell your stomach not to hurt anymore.”

She endured 30 days of the pain, relying on Vicodin to provide her with enough relief to pursue some normal activities — like visiting the Wasco County Fair.

“We went because my granddaughter was showing her steer and we were going to buy some animals,” she remembers. “But just as the animals we were bidding on came up, I felt an intense pain and told my family I needed to go home.”

mid columbia medical center the dalles patient story

Pictured above: Critical Care nurse Elizabeth Copeland, R.N., LaVelle Underhill and Cori Christensen, R.N., director of Critical Care

The pain got so bad, family members instead rushed her to MCMC’s Emergency Department. Dr. Sonia Schuemann ordered a CAT scan, and Dr. Deborah Vogel also consulted on her case.

The scan revealed a tear in the colon — the result of a simmering infection that had been undiagnosed for months. Her colon had “exploded” and the MCMC doctors recommended immediate surgery.

Underhill remembers the pain being so extreme it was 10 times what she experienced during childbirth.
The colon-repair procedure was performed by surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Mathisen and urologist Dr. Marc McAllister. Dr. Lawrence Long, a hospitalist, assisted in Underhill’s care, and she went to great lengths to praise every team member she encountered.

“They all acted like they were truly interested in me; they wanted me to get well, and I knew they were looking out for me,” she says.

“They put me at ease, and right then I knew I was going to get better.”

She did, but not until she spent 30 days in the hospital and 10 days in an assisted living facility. After she finally made it back home, Underhill later returned to the hospital when the infection flared up briefly and for reconstructive abdominal surgery.

She says the care she received at MCMC was overwhelmingly positive — made even more so by the unnecessary and unproductive experiences she had out of town.

“The staff members on the medical floor and in the intensive care unit were just magnificent,” she says. “They were very caring and good at what they were doing.”

They even had her quickly up and walking. Underhill said she was at first reluctant but was soon taking walks outdoors as her healing continued.

After returning home she had the help of MCMC Home Health aide Jeri Bennett and physical therapist Cathy Ruggles, who also drew praise for their assistance.

Ruggles pushed Underhill to get moving, and Underhill says she appreciated her motivation and encouragement.

“She would time how fast I could walk back and forth, and I would walk as fast as I could. I enjoyed the challenge,” says, Underhill, a determined fighter who has battled and overcome previous health issues, including a recent heart attack.

Underhill says the entire experience taught her a lesson about the quality of medical care available locally that she now shares with friends and neighbors.

“I went to Portland expecting to find the best care and I didn’t; I found it at MCMC,” she says. “It’s miraculous what they did for me and I am so grateful.”

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