But Robbie Walker is alive – something that some doctors did not expect two months ago. The 52-year-old struggles to speak a long sentence, and he now uses his own voice to try to prevent others from suffering.
Now, after three weeks at ECMO and a month of learning to walk again, Robbie arrived in Florida this week – with a new mission.
A different life after Kovid-19
Before Robbie fell ill in July, he was a strong and sturdy construction business owner who ran 5 miles every day exercising in the gym.
Robbie told CNN: “In fifty-two years, I did pretty much anything I wanted. “Now, I’m very limited.”
Pulmonary edema and decreased lung capacity mean that he can only speak in short, moving sentences before breathing. He lost more than 50 pounds while in hospital due to his muscle erosion.
Even brushing your teeth is difficult now.
“Sitting in a chair, it’s 5 or 6 minutes of difficulty,” Robbie said.
“If I’m standing, I’ll have to take a break, so it’s a little late,” he said.
“I need more energy to hold you. I can go from sitting in a chair to standing up and my heart rate is going up to 20, 30 beats per minute.”
After receiving ECMO treatment at St. Francis Hospital in Connecticut, Robbie spent a month at the Guild Special Health Service, about 30 miles[30 km]away, for physiotherapy.
He learned to walk again and practiced basic self-care with the help of an assistant. But he still needs a walker to get around, and even after a break he can get tired of small chores.
“Once your heart rate drops and your breathing is correct, you are still tired,” he said. “Physically. It takes a lot of energy to do that.”
But it is worth celebrating that he is still alive.
They told me he was going to die
Robbie telephoned his wife from his hospital bed in Florida on July 25 and told her he had made a decision that had upset him deeply.
“He had signed the papers to be included,” Suzanne said.
Some Kovid-19 patients who are given ventilation do not recover from the disease. The last call they made to their family before the intubation was their last chance.
“He cried and cried and told me he was sorry for the shooting,” Suzanne said. “He begged me to give him the vaccine.”
She did. But it is too late to protect her husband.
“They told me he was going to die,” Susan said. Robbie could not get the ECMO treatment he needed.
In August, Susan told her story to CNN. A few hours later, a doctor 1,200 miles away was checking his Facebook post and saw a CNN video with a video of Susan’s interview.
“I clicked on it and watched it.
Cardiac surgeons work for chest diseases, including heart and lung. When Kovid-19 patients come to Gallagher, they are usually severely disturbed — often requiring ECMO.
“I said, ‘Okay, how do we find this family?’ Angela Sakal, chief perfume specialist at St. Francis Hospital in Connecticut, told CNN.
She contacted a friend she liked on social media in Florida. “Within hours she got Susan’s phone number,” Sakal said.
Within two days, Suban hired a medical evacuation team to fly Robbie from Florida to Connecticut.
When Sakal first sees Robbie, she is not sure if he will survive.
“I can not guarantee you a result,” she recalled telling Susan. “I do not know what the future holds, but I can promise you that we will do the best we can for him.”
ECMO is sometimes used as a last resort for patients with severe Covid-19 lung weakness. It removes blood from the body, removes carbon dioxide, adds oxygen and pumps blood back into the body, allowing the lungs to recover.
Gallagher inserted an ECMO tube into Robbie’s neck. Over the next 22 days, Sakal monitored Robbie’s ECMO treatment.
Young Kovid-19 patients need ECMO
Robbie is not the only person who has seen Sakal, a formerly healthy Kovid-19 patient, need an ECMO.
With the rise of the Delta variant, Sakal said some ECMO patients are in their 20s.
“We find that our cov- eral patients – even young people – have organ failure (and) are previously healthy,” Sakal said. “And Kovid destroys their lungs.”
Not everyone who goes to ECMO survives. But three weeks after receiving his blood, Robbie’s lungs recovered and he was able to help again.
He was released from St. Francis in mid-September and began rehabilitating inpatients for a month at the Gaylord Special Health Care Center.
Robbie said this week, “My lungs have gotten a little better, but (but) my heart rate is still going up a bit.”
“I can walk alone – make sure someone is there and I stay straight, but I use a roller / walker and I can walk a good distance,” he said.
“I mean I’m not going to the mall or going shopping. But I can walk a little bit now. So it’s a big improvement.”
After a month of hard work revealing basic skills, Robbie was released from rehab on Wednesday. Many of his ECMO team at St. Francis Hospital went to Gaylord and drove him to Florida.
Sakal was there. She struggled with tears when she went to see her ex-patient.
“I remember when he first came here,” she said Wednesday. “I’m looking at him today and talking and walking. It’s amazing. It’s so wonderful.”
A new life full of uncertainty and lessons learned
Robbie’s two brothers rented an RV and drove to Connecticut to bring him and Susan home. Running takes more than 24 hours.
When he returned to Florida to resume life, Robbie said he first wanted his wife’s homemade chicken pot.
But many other aspects of his previous life will change.
It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post.
And Robbie doesn’t know if he can go back to all the activities he likes.
“My goal is to get to where I was 80% or 90% hopefully,” he said. But “they do not have enough knowledge of this to give any kind of definite answer.”
At this point he will no longer be able to fish or work out in the gym every day.
“I do not have much energy,” he said jokingly about fishing: “I do not want anything to drag me onto the reel.”
But his lack of physical abilities has given him new wisdom — especially with Kovid-19 and vaccines.
Robbie said that he and Susan had not been able to get the vaccine before because of “a lack of education on our part.”
With the myriad rumors and claims spreading on social media, “you no longer know what to believe,” he said. “A lot of it is our ignorance because we don’t do further research.”
“We thought the vaccine was something that was created in a year or two, so we felt there was not enough information,” he said.
He erroneously assumed that he was not seriously ill.
“I thought it’s going to be like a flu. I thought it’s something that affects people under the circumstances. I had none of that,” Robbie said.
“But for whatever reason it affected me differently. If I had to do it again, I would get it when the vaccine was available.”
Robbie received his first dose of Moderna after he left the hospital. He said he had some side effects a day but they were not as bad as his Kovid-19 symptoms.
“I had a small fever … in my first few days of Kovid disease, I had a bigger fever than that,” Robbie said.
“I had no energy. I often had a fever day and night, but nothing dangerous compared to everything else I spent.”