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Sharp Health News

Lung bypass machine saves patient with COVID-19

Aug. 13, 2020

Ernest Steacy, Sharp ECMO patient

A lung bypass machine, also known as ECMO, saved patient Ernest Steacy’s life when a ventilator wasn’t improving his condition.

Before COVID-19, Ernest Steacy was in the best shape of his life, enjoying golfing with friends and spending time with his girlfriend and roommate. He followed a regimented workout schedule at the gym four days a week, never missing a day.

Ernest was working as an engineering project manager for a small company that contracts with the U.S. Navy. He was spending 10-hour days on a ship, six days a week, with passageways barely wide enough for one person to walk through. Well past the time the state was closing things down due to the coronavirus, he said he was not provided masks or hand sanitizer. Because he was strong and healthy, he didn’t worry about getting sick.

In mid-April, Ernest started feeling tired. At the time, he didn’t have any other symptoms, so he continued to work. A week later, he developed a bad headache and extreme exhaustion; his boss sent him home.

Ernest felt progressively worse that day. When his roommate came home, he immediately called an ambulance. Ernest was taken to Sharp Memorial Hospital’s emergency room. Upon arrival, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU). A week later, Ernest was struggling to breathe and needed to go on a ventilator. The last thing he remembers is being told to count down from five. He woke up 42 days later.

A lifesaving decision
While on the ventilator, Ernest’s condition continued to worsen. His doctors made the decision to put him on a lung bypass machine called veno-venous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (VV-ECMO).

ECMOs are being used more frequently to support patients with coronavirus whose lungs aren’t improving on their own. While on ECMO, a patient’s blood is removed from the body, passed through a machine to remove carbon dioxide and add oxygen, and then returned to the body.

“Ernest was a good candidate for ECMO, because he was extremely healthy prior to acquiring the coronavirus,” says Dr. Davies Wong, a pulmonary disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Although he hadn’t been on the ventilator very long, his condition was deteriorating rapidly. I felt ECMO was Ernest’s only chance to survive.”

ECMO is usually used for about five days; Ernest was on the device for 17 days. He responded well to ECMO and as his condition gradually improved, the device settings were decreased slowly. Eventually, he was taken off ECMO support. A few weeks later, Ernest was able to breathe on his own without the ventilator.

After regaining consciousness, Ernest was weak with lack of muscle tone and unable to get out of bed. But he was determined to get his strength back.

“He never gave up no matter how sick he felt, or short of breath he was,” says Justina Soltren, his acute care therapist. “His mind was telling him to keep going, but his body was not cooperating. I had to tell him it was OK to stop and try again the next day.”

Ernest’s goal was to walk out of the hospital. His drive and perseverance made that happen to the cheering of staff as they played “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.

Continuing to recover
Seven weeks after he was admitted to the hospital, Ernest was transferred next door to the Sharp Allison deRose Rehabilitation Center, where he began a vigorous program of therapies to build his endurance. When he first arrived in rehab, he couldn’t sit up on the end of the bed without getting dizzy and losing his breath.

“I got winded just walking to the bathroom,” Ernest says. “I went from being in the best shape of my life to losing over 60 pounds and feeling weaker than I’ve ever been.”

Ernest left rehab in late June — 67 days after he went to the emergency room. He is now walking almost 500 feet each day with a walker and feeling stronger every day. The first thing he did when he got home was sit on his patio and listen to music. He is continuing his therapies through outpatient rehab.

Ernest has a great support system with his girlfriend, roommate and friends. His daughter has been an advocate from a distance through FaceTime interactions with his doctors, physical therapists and employer.

His doctors told him that if he weren’t in such good shape when he got to the hospital, he probably wouldn’t have made it.

“Everyone should take this stuff seriously because it decimated me,” Ernest says. “My endurance is gone. This is no joke.”

He is grateful to everyone who cared for him while he was in the hospital. He recently sent three dozen long-stemmed roses to the staff to show his appreciation.

As he continues to recover, Ernest’s personal goal is to celebrate his 62nd birthday in September by playing golf with his friends — while following safety guidelines, of course.

“I got a second chance at life, so I’d better take advantage of it,” he says.

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