Every breath Robby Walker takes is one that almost didn’t happen.
Just a few weeks ago, the Florida father of six was on a ventilator with Covid-19 pneumonia in both lungs. Like most Americans hospitalized with Covid-19, Walker was not vaccinated.
“He is in dire need of an ECMO treatment, which is not available at the hospital that he is in,” his wife Susan Walker told CNN in August.
ECMO treatment uses an external machine that can function as the body’s heart and lungs. It can be used for organ transplant patients, victims of severe heart attacks and seriously ill Covid-19 patients — including young adults.
But “all the beds are taken up by Covid victims also getting ECMO treatment,” Susan Walker said at that time.
“So now we’re desperately searching outside of the state just for a hospital to take him.”
What happened next stunned the Walkers, saved Robby’s life and may have spared countless other families from suffering.
The virus ‘spread like wildfire’
No one knows exactly when or where Robby Walker got infected.
“We believe it happened over the Fourth of July weekend,” Susan said. A relative and friend came to visit, and family festivities included several outings — including to an indoor restaurant.
But no one in the family was vaccinated.
Susan had tested positive for Covid-19 in December and assumed her antibodies would protect her.
Others in the family were concerned about whether they might get long-term side effects from the vaccines — even though doctors say the most severe side effects in vaccine history have all been identified within two months.
And the family had a false sense of security because more businesses were fully reopening.
“Our state had opened up. Less people were wearing masks, thinking things were going back to normal,” Susan said.
“We let our guard down … and then we were blindsided.”
Within a few days, Robby developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19.
Shortly afterward, 11 other family members and friends went on a boat trip. All 11 of them became infected, Susan said.
“It spread like wildfire,” she said.
Susan did not get sick this summer. But she says her son, her brother-in-law, her cousin and her cousin’s fiancée all got Covid-19.
Two months later, Susan’s 51-year-old brother-in-law still struggles to breathe normally — frequently coughing and fighting to catch his breath, she said.
But it was her 52-year-old husband who suffered the most.
The fever had progressed to pneumonia in both lungs, and he was rushed to an emergency room.
On July 25, Robby called his wife from his hospital bed and told her he had made a gut-wrenching decision.
“He had signed the papers to be intubated,” Susan said.
Some Covid-19 patients who get put on ventilators don’t survive the disease. Their final calls to their families before intubation are their last.
“He cried and just told me how regretful he was of not getting the shot,” Susan said. “And he begged me to go get vaccinated.”
She did. She also started a cross-country mission to save her husband’s life.
Striking out after 169 hospitals in several states
Ten days after Robby was intubated, a doctor told Susan her husband most likely “was not going to make it out of the hospital.”
“When they told me he was dying, I just didn’t accept it,” she said.
Susan asked about the possibility of a lung transplant but learned the waiting list for lungs is extensive due to the surge of Covid-19 patients, she recalled.
Another option was ECMO: extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.
ECMO can sometimes be used as a last resort for critically ill Covid-19 patients — removing blood from the body, eliminating carbon dioxide and adding oxygen to the blood, and then pumping the blood back into the body so the real heart and lungs might have a chance to recover.
But with Florida’s recent influx of hospitalized Covid-19 patients, ECMO availability for Robby was scarce to nonexistent.
“We have searched every hospital from the south of Florida to the north part of Florida,” Susan said in early August.
So family members created a list of hospitals to call and see if anyone had ECMO availability.
Susan started the search by Googling “ECMO hospitals in Florida.” Then Georgia. Louisiana. Alabama. Virginia.
The family called 169 hospitals. No one was able to take Robby.
The day after exhausting that list, Susan appeared on CNN — fearing Robby might be out of options. But a doctor in Connecticut saw her interview and had an idea.
A risky 1,200-mile journey
Dr. Robert Gallagher was checking his Facebook feed and saw a CNN post with a video clip of Susan’s interview.
“I just clicked on it and watched it and … it was pretty compelling,” said Gallagher, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Trinity Health of New England.
Cardiothoracic surgeons operate on diseases in the chest, including in the heart and lungs. By the time Covid-19 patients reach Gallagher, they’re usually in dire condition — and sometimes in need of ECMO.
He forwarded Susan’s interview to the chief perfusionist, who runs the ECMO machines, and decided to try to get Robby Walker to Connecticut.
Within a few hours, Susan was on the phone with the hospital — where the coveted ECMO treatment and a staffed bed were available.
But the journey from Florida to Connecticut was arduous. Robby was intubated, and placed on a specially equipped medical flight.
Susan was not allowed to fly with him, so she drove 22 hours to Connecticut, hoping her husband would still be alive when she got there.
“It was kind of my Hail Mary because if I would have not taken the chance, they just would have had no choice but to leave him there and have his organs fail one by one,” Susan said.
Robby survived the 1,200-mile journey and started ECMO treatment at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. Gallagher was there to help treat him.
“We put the tubes in — they’re called cannulas. One tube drains the blood out, usually from the leg,” the doctor said.
“And then (the blood) gets reinfused through the ECMO machine through, usually, the jugular vein, back into the area around the heart.”
It was a shocking sight for Susan.
“When I walked into the hospital room to see two tubes 20 feet long, holding his blood outside of his body — the sight of that was like, ‘Oh, Lord, what have I done?'” she said.
Robby spent 22 days on ECMO, and Susan spent as much time with him as she could.
She got to know the family of a nearby Covid-19 patient who was younger than Robby. That patient soon died.
“I sit in the hospital room and I just listen to, you know, the door next to Robby,” she said. “The family comes in, screaming and crying. I cry. It’s just devastating.”
Then on September 2, Robby Walker was taken off ECMO treatment. His heart and lungs were able to support him again.
It appeared the father of six would survive — thanks largely to the doctor who stumbled upon Susan’s interview and decided to help.
If not for Gallagher, “I’d probably be sitting in front of a tombstone,” Susan said.
ECMO treatment does not guarantee survival, Gallagher said. At his hospital, about 50% to 60% of Covid-19 patients who go on ECMO survive.
But without ECMO, he said, Robby Walker probably would not have survived.
From vaccine hesitant to vaccine insistent
Robby Walker lost 50 pounds while he was hospitalized with Covid-19. After weeks of muscle erosion, the formerly sturdy construction business owner who exercised at the gym daily now struggles to stand up.
“We just started physical therapy this week,” Robby said Thursday. “I can already tell a difference from last week.”
He got emotional when he talked about how hard Susan and other family members worked to find life-saving treatment for him.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” Robby said, crying. “She’s my hero.”
He also credited Gallagher and the chief perfusionist for making his recovery possible.
And now that he can talk again, Robby has made one request abundantly clear, Susan said:
“My husband has decided when we get home … if you’re not vaccinated, you’re not going to come around him.”
Robby said he’s concerned about the possibility of getting infected again.
“We’ve talked about putting a sign on the front door: ‘If you’re not vaccinated, you can’t come in. We’ll talk on the yard,'” Robby said.
He’d also prefer visitors to wear masks. Because his lungs are scarred, he might not be able to handle another illness well — whether it’s Covid-19, the flu or any other virus.
The family’s ordeal has inspired at least 60 friends, family and colleagues to get the Covid-19 vaccine, Susan said.
April Torri and her husband were “not anti-vaxxers,” she said. But they were concerned after a family friend’s relative started trembling a week after her vaccination in March. Torri said that family believes it was the result of the vaccination, though the cause is not certain.
“My husband and I said, ‘No, we’re not (getting vaccinated). We don’t know about it. It’s not going to happen,” said Torri, a friend of Robby’s and an employee at Susan’s real estate title business.
“We were a ‘no no no no no no.’ And then Robby happened. It made us think twice.”
And since Robby was hospitalized, two lifelong friends from their hometown of Clermont, Florida, died from Covid-19, Torri said.
Both were under age 50. Neither was vaccinated.
A 46-year-old friend died earlier this month. “It shook me,” Torri said. “I had just seen her a few weeks ago. It definitely took her very fast.”
So Torri and her husband got vaccinated. So did their 21-year-old son. “None of us have had any negative (side effects),” Torri said.
To others who are vaccine hesitant like she was before Robby fell ill, “I would say do your research,” Torri said.
“I feel like that proof is in the numbers,” she said. “For me and my family, I want to be around for a long time.”
Robby’s plight also inspired longtime friend Jo Lynn Nicholson to vaccinate her sons, now ages 14 and 17.
Nicholson had Covid-19 in December and decided to get vaccinated earlier this year.
“I didn’t know a lot about the new (Delta) variant, but I knew people were getting infected again,” she said.
But like some parents, she didn’t think she needed to vaccinate her children against Covid-19.
Then Robby’s condition rapidly deteriorated. And on the way to visit Nicholson’s elderly parents, her older son Caden started showing mild symptoms.
Shortly after the trip, Caden and both grandparents tested positive for Covid-19.
“Having Robby have that Delta and then my son getting it and giving it to my parents … I just was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t have what happened to Robby happen to my family or my kids.'”
She soon took her sons to get vaccinated — and not just for their own health. Nicholson wanted to minimize the risk of her children accidentally spreading the virus to others and causing a shortage of hospital resources — just like Robby faced.
With so many Covid-19 patients in hospitals, she’s particularly worried about her 17-year-old getting into a car crash.
“If he got in an accident, he wouldn’t have the health care … because they don’t have the room, and they don’t have the staff,” Nicholson said.
“And that scares me more than anything with my kids right now.”
Looking back, Nicholson said she has no regrets about getting her children vaccinated.
“The only regret I have is not doing it sooner,” she said. “The only thing I can do to help what’s going on right now is to get them vaccinated and just be careful.”
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