David and Christy Cottrell. Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing

Health care from the heart: Three new valves and a fresh outlook on life and love

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David Cottrell was working in the grocery industry 30 years ago when he met Christy. It was business that brought them together and carried them forward for the next three decades.

“He was a salesman and I was a buyer,” Christy said. “I guess you could say I bought the goods.”

Fast-forward to today and the pair is happily married. They have two children and have built a very successful global enterprise that collects competitive information for retail outlets.

“Christy started the company in our garage on my American Express card and now we have more than 2,000 employees across the world,” David said. “We’re both pretty much Type-A people. We live together, work together, travel together — we’re pretty much together all the time.”

For the Cottrells, “together all the time” was mostly based on business — until now. At 73 years old, David answered a life-threatening wake-up call.

It is not the flu

David, who was born and raised in Richmond, is very proud of his health. In 50 years he never missed a day of work, never smoked and rarely enjoyed a cocktail.

“Health-wise, I have been very fortunate,” David said. “That is why it was quite a shock going to the hospital.”

In December 2014, after a long day in the office, David went home feeling like he had a touch of the flu. He woke up the next day in unbearable pain, unable to move. Christy called 911 and emergency medical services took David to a nearby hospital. After a few days in the hospital, health care providers discovered David was fighting something more dangerous than the flu. Christy consulted a thoracic surgeon in New York. They recommended a transfer to VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, located in downtown Richmond at VCU Medical Center.

David Cottrell Story

“Mr. Cottrell was extremely sick when he arrived here,” said Daniel Tang, M.D., cardiac surgeon at VCU Health. “He had a very rapid deteriorating course. He was septic from an infection to his heart valves, which was showering bacteria throughout his body.”

The bacteria was impacting David’s brain, causing a blockage of blood supply or multiple embolic strokes as a result of the infection. His body was also going into multisystem organ failure. David had meningitis, as well as a brain inflammation known as ventriculitis. He needed surgery, which was fairly high risk given his current state.

“We are always worried, particularly when somebody has had a recent stroke,” Tang said, adding that there is potential for bleeding in the brain when someone is put on the heart-lung machine.

With the first surgery, Tang and his team successfully replaced David’s aortic and mitral valves, both of which were destroyed from the infection. While his course to recovery was fairly complicated, Tang says David made remarkable progress at first. However, about one month after his original surgery, David was about to be discharged to a step-down unit when he became dangerously sick again — the infection was reoccurring. Tang got David back into the operating room where he re-replaced his mitral valve.

This was just the first of many setbacks that slowed David’s recovery. Over the course of one year, David underwent four surgeries, including three major open-heart procedures. Tang describes the situation as fairly unusual, but it was not enough to deter David. 

“Never once did I think, ‘I am going to die,’” David said.

David spent more than four months in the hospital rotating through the intensive care unit, step-down units and inpatient rehabilitation. All the while, Christy was at David’s side while continuing to run day-to-day operations of their company as CEO. Other family members waited in the wings to tag in when Christy needed to step away.

“The doctors and nurses are not there to see every single thing that happens, so I was able to share observations,” Christy said. “They listened to me. It was clear they wanted to hear my thoughts.”

Tang also recognizes the importance of a person’s will to live and the support around them throughout the course of care.

“The Cottrells are amazing folks,” Tang said. “David was always goal oriented. Even when he was under profound physiologic distress, his desire to constantly move forward and improve was impressive. His entire family, especially Mrs. Cottrell, was extremely supportive.”

Collaborative care

When someone is in the hospital for such an extended period of time, they cross paths with hundreds of care providers and various team members in support services. Having a patient advocate to navigate the system is a great help. For David and Christy that person was Denise Lynch, a registered nurse and access support and assistance program coordinator at VCU Health, who says the team made the difference in David’s care.

At VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, the team-based approach is known as collaborative, interdisciplinary care and, according to Lynch, in David’s case it was a must.

“It takes work to get all those people in the right place, at the right time and in the right sequence,” Lynch said. “You have to collaborate. I think it is something that we really specialize in here.”

Tang agrees.

“We emphasize a team approach to care,” Tang said. “In regards to Mr. Cottrell’s case, if you look at the number of folks that were involved in his care, it is a long list.”

As David puts it, “How do you begin to thank all the people who saved your life three times?”

How do you begin to thank all the people who saved your life three times?

A new outlook

David Cottrell
David Cottrell

David and Christy spent much of their 30 years together focused on the business, but now they have new priorities. Spending the past year in and out of the hospital near death was a rollercoaster ride for the Cottrells. The experience has put life into perspective for them. As Christy said, “It makes you focus on the moment.”

“Now that I’m out and feeling so well, work is not as important to me as it always has been,” David said. “It is time to do some other things. We have been together for so long; it’ll be fun to be side-by-side enjoying things rather than just talking business.”

Since David’s recovery the Cottrells have shifted their focus and strive to lead a more balanced life. They recently bought a new home to renovate and are now traveling for leisure. David and Christy say they would never be at this point if it were not for VCU Health treating them like family.

“The greatest thing is that we never felt like David was just another patient,” Christy said.

“Nobody ever left me saying, ‘I’ve got somewhere else to go,’” David added. “They treated me like I was special.”


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