WALLINGFORD — A Florida resident airlifted to Connecticut for a lifesaving COVID treatment was able to climb up the stairs onto an RV for his road trip home after being discharged from Gaylord Specialty Healthcare on Wednesday.
As he stood up from his wheelchair with help from his wife, Robby Walker was cheered by family and staff from Gaylord and St. Francis Hospital in Hartford— where he was given extracorporeal membrane oxygenation treatment after arriving in August.
Walker said he is worried about leaving the staff at St. Francis and Gaylord, but he’s also excited to go home to continue his recovery.
"I don't know that there's anything I could ever say to show that appreciation," he said.
He urged those holding off on getting the vaccine — as he had before his hospitalization — to get the COVID shot.
"Everybody has their choice,” he said. “For me it was a lack of education. When I say that, I just didn't realize it was a shot that had been developed for years. I thought it was something that had been developed in a year, so it was more of a fear to get it ... but my answer now would be absolutely get it.”
Walker first tested positive in early July. His symptoms worsened and he was taken to the emergency room, where an X-ray showed he had pneumonia in both lungs. He was moved into the intensive care unit and was intubated at the end of the month. His condition continued to decline, however, and doctors told his wife that without further interventions he would not survive.
Lung transplants are hard to secure due to the long waiting list of COVID-19 patients seeking the procedure. The machines required for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation treatment (ECMO), which Walker received, remain relatively scarce compared to ventilators. After being told that it could be the only treatment that would save her husband, Susan Walker called over 160 hospitals and was unable to find one with capacity.
After she appeared on CNN on Aug. 8, Dr. Robert Gallagher, medical director of St. Francis’ ECMO program, learned of her situation and consulted with Dr. Angela Sakal, clinical perfusionist at St. Francis, to determine that they had the capacity to take him as a patient. By that point Walker had weakened so much that it wasn’t clear he would survive the flight.
"The first time I talked to Angela, she said to me, 'You know the risk and if you're willing to take the chance, we're willing to take the chance with you.' So without that chance, my husband wouldn't be sitting here right now. So I'm forever grateful,” Susan Walker said.
St. Francis has administered ECMO treatment to 28 patients thus far in 2021. The process can range from a couple weeks to over 120 days.
"ECMO can be either for heart support or lung support,” Sakal said. “In Robby's case it was for lung support, we take the blood out of the body and we artificially remove carbon dioxide and add oxygen and then put it back in the body, allowing the heart and the lungs — in his case the lungs — to rest until they can recover. Robby was on ECMO for 22 days before we were able to take him off.”
When the hospital has had capacity in its ECMO unit, it has tried to bring in patients from areas that are being harder hit by the pandemic.
"We've had, since Robby, several transfers from out of state for ECMO because of limited beds in other places,” Sakal said.Determined to recover
The ECMO treatment was able to turn Walker’s condition around, allowing him to begin recovery treatment at Gaylord around a month ago.
"Patients in the acute care hospital that need ECMO, that need prolonged ventilator support, there's no way that they're just going to walk out of the hospital, so they need to be able to come to a rehab place such as Gaylord Specialty Healthcare to get their lives back again,” said Megan Panico, Gaylord’s medical director.
Even though Walker had been hospitalized for an extended period, he came to Gaylord determined to recover and was up and walking on the first day, said physical therapist Tim Kilbride.
“I would say for me personally, his was probably the most involved medical history, so we didn't know what his outcome was going to be right off the bat because he was in the hospital so long,” Kilbride said. “From my initial assessment, Robby surpassed all of my expectations, all of the goals that I set — I was setting new goals almost every week because he kept working so hard and doing so well.”‘Excited to go home’
Occupational therapist Lexie Maneen said the willpower both Robby and Susan Walker showed is an inspiration for all those recovering from COVID-19. Recovery can be a delicate process — even just standing can push one’s heart to dangerous levels — but she believes Walker will be able to get close to where he was before he contracted the virus.
"They're both amazing people, they don't give up. You know, from day one Robby was motivated; he was short of breath, his heart rate was racing, but he was ready to get going right from the beginning,” she said.
Now that the hard part is behind them, Susan Walker said she’s ready to slow their life down and appreciate the little moments together.
"I'm beyond excited and beyond happy,” she said. “It has been 89 days since my husband and I have eaten breakfast together, since we stayed the night together. Just we're excited to go home and just relax and I'm going to cook him food.”