Palo Alto's Ellin Klor would have a hard time intimidating anyone.
The 58-year-old children's librarian is of medium height, with a physique that is more couch potato than gym rat — and a demeanor more friendly than frightening. In her free time, she knits.
But three times in the past 15 years, she's stared down death.
Twice she battled breast cancer and won. Right before her second bout with cancer, she got stabbed in the heart by a knitting needle in a freak accident.
Not only did she live to tell about it, but Klor was also instrumental in her own survival. At least twice she warned people — including one emergency room doctor — not to pull the needle out of her chest. Had they not listened to her, she most likely would have bled to death before doctors had time to close the hole in her heart.
Klor says there's nothing special about her. If she can survive what she's been through, anyone can.
"Look at me. I'm a little cream puff. I'm not a warrior woman," she said Saturday, sitting at a round wooden table in her home.
But others think people in similar situations could learn a lot from Klor. Indeed, the story of how she survived the knitting needle accident is in the opening chapter of "The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life," a book by Ben Sherwood that hits store shelves today.
An accidental stab wound to the heart is unusual but not unheard of, said Susan
Two years ago, Australian "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin died after he was stabbed in the heart by a sting ray's barb, Brundage noted. Unlike Klor, who left the needle in her chest, Irwin reportedly removed the barb from his.
"This is someone who should have known what he was doing," Brundage said. In contrast, Klor — who told Brundage her medical knowledge came from the television show "E.R." — "calmly reacted and sought care," Brundage said.
The accident happened three years ago. Klor was on her way to a friend's house for a regular meeting of her knitting club. She had her arms full of things, including a friend's wooden knitting needles, when she slipped on the step leading into the house and fell flat on her chest. When she picked herself up, she felt a pain in her chest every time she breathed.
After going inside, she tried to figure out what was wrong, but there wasn't any blood and no obvious signs of injury. Only after removing her sweatshirt did she discover that a broken knitting needle was sticking through her bra.
"I knew it was in my chest, but I didn't know how far," she said.
One of Klor's friends, Alyssa Erickson, wanted to pull it out, but Klor told her not to touch it. The group of friends then started talking about driving Klor to the emergency room, but she told them they needed to call 911 — right away. Before the paramedics took her away in an ambulance, she sat on the couch in the living room with her friends and even had the presence of mind to ask them to call her husband, Hal, to let him know what had happened.
"She didn't panic, and she knew the right things to do," Erickson said. "It was all kind of very matter of fact."
Klor says now that she just didn't think the injury was very serious.
"There was no blood,'' she said. "I wasn't in a huge amount of pain."
After she arrived at Stanford Medical Center — and fended off the doctor who wanted to pull out the broken needle — the emergency doctors gave her a CT scan and discovered that the needle had pierced the right ventricle of her heart.
"That's when I started to get scared," Klor said. "I wondered if I would live or die."
She went into surgery immediately. Her chest was cracked open as if she were undergoing bypass surgery, and Brundage removed the needle.
One stitch to the heart later, Klor was on her way to recovery. And to her next date with death.
Less than two weeks after the accident, Klor was back at Stanford, suffering from a terrible pain in her upper back. Worried that she was suffering from a blood clot, possibly in her lungs, the doctors took X-rays and other tests of her chest region. But the tests turned up nothing, so the doctors sent her home with nothing more than some pain medication.
Two days later, a radiologist called to let her know that they had found an enlarged lymph node in her right breast. For a cancer survivor like Klor, that was a warning sign that cancer had returned. Fortunately for Klor, the cancer hadn't spread. After surgery, and six months of chemotherapy and radiation, she's healthy once more.
The first time she battled cancer, Klor said, she was emotional, frequently in tears. The second time, she was much calmer.
She drew on her recent accident for strength: If the knitting needle didn't kill her, cancer wasn't going to either, she told herself.
Klor says she's lucky. The needle accident could have been much worse. Her second cancer could have been much more widespread.
What's more, she acknowledges she had a lot of help, including a loving family, good friends and, overall, top-flight medical care.
But she hopes others can learn from her experiences, that "for people who need it, it gives them hope."
Contact Troy Wolverton at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5021.