A Miami fire captain survived COVID-19 after being hospitalized for 60 days at Cleveland Clinic.
Javier Valdes, 42, was once a healthy and active Miami fire captain. However, COVID-19 sent him to the emergency room after he couldn’t break a fever.
“I kept praying to God 'please don’t let them intubate you for my birthday at least,'” Valdes said.
His lungs hardly worked and he would spend his birthday intubated, plus an additional 57 days.
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“The ventilator was no longer working. My body was shutting down. It was giving up already,” said Valdes.
That was the point when Valdes says doctors felt the need to use the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to keep him alive.
Cleveland Clinic Weston is one of the few hospitals that use the ECMO machine, which is the highest level of life support, on COVID-19 patients.
The machine mimics the heart and lungs by pumping blood from the patient’s body to an artificial lung where it does the exchange of gas and sends the blood right back to the patient.
Not every hospital has ECMO machines. It has about a 50% survival rate and is very expensive, often costing about $5,000 per day. It’s also labor-intensive, requiring a nurse around the clock, which is complicated by staffing shortages.
“What we are learning more and more is that it’s not the risk of the machine — it’s how sick the patients are when they are on the machine,” said Dr. Nicholas Brozzi, director of the ECMO program for Cleveland Clinic Florida.
Dr. Brozzi said the oxygenator is only used as an additional tool for qualifying patients when the ventilator is no longer enough. These are usually patients who are younger and have problems confined to their lungs.
Dr. Brozzi treated Valdes, who was not vaccinated at the time of his hospitalization.
“If it wasn’t for Cleveland Clinic, the medical staff and that machine with Dr. Brozzi and his team, I wouldn’t be here right now. My parents wouldn’t have a son, my wife wouldn’t have a husband. That simple. There’s no way around it. My kids wouldn’t have a father. I know that and I believe that,” said Valdes.
Valdes hasn’t been able to return to work because he is still recovering. He is still working through complications after he needed his gallbladder removed.