When 34-year-old Katie of Highlands Ranch started feeling sick in May of last year, she thought it was just another virus her children brought home from school. At ages 7 and 9, they had been sick with head colds and an ear infection. The family also had heard that strep throat was being diagnosed among their classmates. “I started feeling kind of sick, but I hadn’t gone to the doctor. I kept pushing it off because I was taking care of the kids,” Katie explains. “But on the second or third day of being sick, I just all of a sudden felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
Jordan, Katie’s high school sweetheart and husband of more than a decade, became concerned and drove her to urgent care for evaluation. The team at the urgent care center concluded that Katie needed more advanced care than they could provide, so she was brought to Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree. “This is where I don’t remember much because I went into a coma. I was in lung failure, which was why I couldn’t breathe. They placed me in a medically induced coma and I was diagnosed with streptococcal pneumonia, which was causing all of my organs to fail,” she details. Later, a provider explained to Katie that she’d gotten three significant infections all at once and, despite being young and healthy, the combination was too much for her body to handle. This led to organ failure, and she began to show signs of sepsis.
As her health continued to decline, the team at Sky Ridge recommended Katie for transfer to The Medical Center of Aurora (TMCA), a HealthONE sister hospital of Sky Ridge. TMCA is one of only a few hospitals in the Denver metro area that is equipped with ECMO: extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation. ECMO is a machine used to support the function of the heart and/or lungs in critically ill patients. “ECMO works by taking blood out of the body, oxygenating it and re-delivering it to the person,” explains TMCA’s Jason Shofnos, MD, a fellowship-trained cardiac surgeon double-board certified in cardiac and thoracic surgery. “ECMO started receiving more attention during COVID. Many people were so sick that we were having to support both the lungs and the heart. I’d argue that this technology saved hundreds if not thousands of lives at Denver-area facilities during COVID.” Dr. Shofnos furthers that, because of the impact of COVID, ECMO technology and support has continued to advance in the last several years, refining and improving both the equipment and the education of the providers. “While the technology is not new, it’s been reinvigorated. We are using it for patients we weren’t necessarily thinking about using it on before. Now, we see it as a bridge to another therapy or recovery. It buys time for critically ill heart and lung patients, giving the medications time to work and the body to heal,” he adds.
For Katie, this bridge was lifesaving. “They were saying that I had a very slim chance of living. They told my husband to get the kids and bring them to say goodbye to me,” Katie recalls through tears. “He told them ‘No she’s not going to die’ and they said if I could be transported to [TMCA] there was a machine there that could bring me back to life. And that’s when they made the decision to transfer me.”
Katie’s hospital stay lasted the entire summer, but thanks to the support of ECMO and her specialized care team, she was able to heal. Care at a facility such as TMCA is unique—not only because of access to the ECMO machine, but also because of the highly specialized team operating it and caring for ECMO patients. “The nurses not only have more training, but they also have an affinity to care for these types of patients. We also have intensivists (critical care doctors) who are specialized in this as well. Each morning in the ICU, we have rounds together—one of the surgeons, a nurse practitioner, nurses, a pharmacist, a case manager, a dietitian and perfusionist. We all collaborate on the patient’s care and what’s the appropriate step to take that day. This is an important part of ECMO care—helping the patient get off the machine and into recovery,” says Dr. Shofnos.
While Katie’s road to recovery wasn’t short or easy—a 60-day stay in the hospital and physical therapy—she is returning to normal life slowly. She’s spending time with Jordan and their children, overseeing home renovations, cooking and baking for her family once again. Katie reports that she is grateful for both the technology as well as the team that supported her at the hospital. “Every nurse I had was so nice. I must have looked scary with tubes and bags and IVs, but they didn’t treat me like just a lump lying there. They talked to me and saw me as a person,” she explains. “It’s crazy what this technology and team can do, but it’s such a good thing. It saved my life.”