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‘So glad I’m still here’ |  Health beat

‘So glad I’m still here’ | Health beat

  • October 4, 2021

Agnes Doolittle breathes easily these days.

She loves to sit on the porch swing of her Stanton, Michigan farm and watch the hummingbirds and orioles soar in and out of their flower beds.

But her family often doubted that she would have them back home.

In February 2019, doctors at Spectrum Health diagnosed her with early stages of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Her mother had it too and she only lost her brother to the illness the year before. But she had relatively few symptoms.

Then, in the summer of 2020, Doolittle contracted COVID-19, which resulted in severe pneumonia.

That took her to the hospital in Alma, Michigan. While the doctors pronounced them well enough to go home after a week, the virus made her basic condition worse.

“I’ve never had breathing problems before I got COVID,” Doolittle said. “But when they sent me home, I needed extra oxygen.”

Back at the farm, she tried to keep up with her husband Ladd and the chores. She struggled to keep up with her large family.

When she turned 68 in mid-August, things had become difficult.

“I had to admit that I wasn’t doing so well,” she said. “It was hard to breathe.”

But her granddaughter had planned to get married on the farm on August 21st. Nothing, said Doolittle, could interfere.

When her daughter arrived to help prepare for the event, she could see Doolittle struggling to get enough air.

“She called my pulmonologist who said I should go to the emergency room,” Doolittle said.

She did – but only after the last meal had been served to the wedding guests.

“Then I changed and we went to Spectrum Health in Greenville,” said Doolittle.

Loss of lung function

Agnes remembers the first three weeks. At first, she seemed better, said Spectrum Health transplant coordinator Jennifer Hartman, RN, CPTC.

“We had already completed the initial stages of preparing for a lung transplant,” said Hartman.

Doctors took her to Blodgett Hospital for rehab, and Agnes recalls the exciting moment on September 12th when she learned that the transplant team had a pair of lungs.

However, these were found to be unusable, a fairly common occurrence in lung transplants.

It got darker quickly. She was put on a ventilator on September 15, and her condition continued to deteriorate the next day.

“She had a sudden decline and immediately went to the intensive care unit at Butterworth Hospital,” Hartman said.

On the morning of the 17thNS, Agnes was struggling to breathe so hard that the team called Ladd to tell him the ventilator was insufficient. They had to get on a machine called Agnes. set ECMO, Abbreviation for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

Details of these days are fuzzy in her head.

“But even when she was in a coma, the nurses said, ‘She can hear us.’ I would hold her hand and she squeezed it, ”said Ladd. “It was emotional and great to know that she could respond to me.”

Doolittle has hazy memories of emerging from a coma, “like trying to climb out of a deep dark hole.”

“But I remember they woke me up on the morning of September 19th and told me they had new lungs for me,” said Agnes. “And I remember being driven into an operation.”

Stay strong

Marzia Leacche, MD, the cardiovascular surgeon who put Doolittle on the ECMO machine and performed the transplant, said her case was exceptional in several ways.

Traditionally, people 65 and over are not considered candidates for lung transplants.

Doolittle had just turned 68.

“But that was never our policy at Spectrum Health,” said Dr. Leacche. “We consider every patient as an individual.”

Second, anyone sick enough to need an ECMO machine is seriously ill – so they are at high risk for a transplant.

“But before we went to the operating room, we checked her out,” said Dr. Leacche. “And she was a lot stronger than we expected, even though she was very sick.”

While Spectrum Health’s lung transplant team performed the procedure more than 200 times, Doolittle’s procedure marked the first time a transplant was performed on a case with COVID-19 at Spectrum Health.

It is one of only a Handful of such cases in the USA

“The ECMO actually made her a higher risk patient,” said Dr. Leacche. “But she did very well.”

Post-surgery challenges

Doolittle is pleased with her progress. Your care team at Spectrum Health is impressed with their care in keeping up with the demands of life after the transplant.

Few people recognize the challenges, such as the confusing anti-rejection drug therapy.

“Agnes takes a lot of drugs,” said Megan Gates, RN, lung transplant coordinator for Spectrum Health.

“These are important because there can be a rejection especially in the first six months,” said Gates. “There are different ways to prepare the medication and at several different times during the day to take the medication. It’s a lot to keep track of. “

Doolittle was an absolutely good sport.

“We appreciate how sober she is,” said Gates. “She is an ideal patient.”

There are limitations. Doolittle is not allowed to garden as digging in dirt is a risk of infection.

She gave away her houseplants.

Although she is still out of breath at times, she is getting better all the time. And she and her entire family are grateful to the donor’s family and the lungs that now keep them alive.

Three other grandchildren recently got married. That is what it has to be there for.

“We’re also having two baby showers,” said Doolittle, “for two new great-grandchildren on the way. I’m so glad I’m still here.”

Thank You For Reading!


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