ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When doctors at Swedish Medical Center decided to use an ECMO machine to do what Nick McWilliams’ lungs could no longer do, they knew the father of three stood no better than a 50/50 shot of survival.
It’s sort of a last ditch, no-other-choices-available, effort to keep a COVID patient alive. The machine takes blood out of the body rich with carbon dioxide and returns it to the body rich with oxygen.
Yep, just like our lungs usually do. With McWilliams, however, the virus had rendered his lungs useless.
Thursday, 158 days after he was first admitted, McWilliams walked out of the hospital. The last-ditch effort ultimately proved to be successful.
“I’m ready to take the next journey. I’m ready,” said McWilliams. His lungs have mostly healed.
He knows he’s one of the lucky ones. The doctors and nurses who cared for him know that story far too well.
“It’s really tough. There are several people who didn’t make it,” said Dr. Luciano Lemos-Filho. You can see the grind of the last year-and-a-half on his face. Caring for very ill COVID patients has been the most difficult assignment of his career.
While the average length of ECMO use for a COVID patient is close to 14 days, McWilliams remained on one for 91 days.
“I will confess that I was disheartened around day 30 that his lung volumes weren’t getting any better,” he said.
He called colleagues around the country. They urged him to remain patient.
Two months in, things started to turn.
Thursday’s discharge represented, to Lemos-Filho, a wonderful success story. “It’s why we do what we do,” he said as a tear slowly rolled down his face.
Madison Babb, RN, agreed.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” she said. She’s worked with McWilliams for months inside Swedish’s ICU.
She joined dozens of her colleagues, each with a remarkably personal story to tell, Thursday afternoon to cheer McWilliams on as he left the hospital for the first time since late June.
McWilliams was blunt as he waited for his ride home. At the time he and his wife came down with COVID, he was unvaccinated. He wasn’t against the vaccine, but he had kept putting it off.
“People have just got to get the shot,” he said.
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