Robert and Christine Szudor
Robert and Christine Szudor will never forget October 30, 2014.
Robert was having a hard time breathing, so Christine, his wife of 46 years, decided they should head to Advocate Condell Immediate Care Center in Gurnee, Ill., not far from their home. Almost immediately upon arriving, the Gurnee couple realized the situation was dire.
“It wasn’t two minutes before the clinic called an ambulance,” recalls Christine, who along with their adult son followed the ambulance to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill.
Once there, Robert went into cardiac arrest while in the catheterization lab during a diagnostic angiogram. To save him, doctors needed to open his blocked coronary artery, but he was too unstable. In order for Interventional Cardiologist Dr. Fahd Jajeh to perform the vital angioplasty and stent procedure, doctors first took a rare step. Dr. Elliott Cohen, an intensivist, and Dr. Robert Kummerer, a cardiovascular surgeon, put Robert on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO).
ECMO uses a machine to temporarily perform the work of the lungs and, sometimes, the heart. It’s also referred to as Extracorporeal Life Support. When a patient is on ECMO, his blood circulates outside his body while the “membrane oxygenation” serves as artificial lungs, adding oxygen to the blood while removing carbon dioxide.
Dr. Cohen explains: “By taking over heart and lung functions, it allows them to rest and recover, ensuring the patient maintains adequate oxygen. When the heart and/or lungs have healed and are able resume their work, the ECMO is gradually removed.”
Condell has a multidisciplinary team of intensivists, surgeons and nurse-ECMO specialists, which places the hospital in an elite position. “Many area hospitals have ECMO machines, but do not have formal ECMO programs as we do, with expertise to care for these patients," Dr. Cohen says.
Transferred to Condell’s intensive care unit, Robert “was hooked up to a variety of machines and had 30-some IVs,” Christine says. “His heart was working at only five to 10 percent of what it should be, and his kidneys and lungs were not working at all.” Doctors told her he could not stay on ECMO for an extended period of time.
She met with Robert’s physicians, who gave her a thorough summary of his condition and possible outcomes. “Afterward, I told them to do whatever they could to keep him alive as long as there was hope,” she says. “They told me it was a matter of seeing what would happen minute by minute and day by day. Each day, he seemed to show improvement.”
After two weeks, Robert was weaned off a ventilator; a tracheotomy tube replaced it. “I could not tell him what had gone on, just that he had a heart attack and is recovering,” Christine explains. He began to understand.
Robert says he doesn’t remember anything that happened in the month after his heart attack. Among his first memories was learning of the heroic efforts to save his life.
“[I learned] that Dr. Cohen had assembled a team of specialists including Dr. Jajeh and Dr. Kummerer. They hooked me up to an ECMO machine,” Robert says. ”[At one time] I asked Dr. Cohen if I’d had one foot in the grave. He said ‘No, you had both feet in the grave.”
After Robert was weaned off ECMO, he was discharged from Condell and transferred to a rehabilitation facility. He was unable to speak, so he used a white board to communicate when he became strong enough.
Within several weeks of his transfer, he began to experience a wide range of medical issues, including his heart racing, his kidneys failing and lungs filling with fluid. He gained 41 pounds and began to decline. He returned to Condell.
“When he returned to Condell, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator was installed to stop his heart from racing, and we began to see immediate improvement,” says Dr. Cohen. “His was one of the most acute cases I’ve seen and one of the most incredible recoveries.”
Within a week of his return to Condell, the swelling went down. A week later, he could walk again.
Robert and Christine are grateful.
“If not for the ECMO team of physicians at Condell, Rob would not be here right now,” Christine says. “They not only kept him alive, but also gave him his life back. Without their dedication and expertise, there would have been no hope. The ICU team, all the nurses, everyone at Condell did all they could to help him. They amazed us.
“Rob is still recovering, but he is up and about and functioning. If not for the ECMO team, we -- and our son -- would have had no chance of a life together.”