Back From the Brink

Michael Jones could not wake Irene, his wife of 42 years. Not feeling well, she had gone upstairs to lie down. When Michael found her, she was unresponsive. Panicked, he dialed 911 and called his daughter Melissa who rushed to her parents’ home.

“She did not recognize me,” says Melissa. “Her eyes weren’t following me, and the EMTs could not get a blood sugar reading because it was so high.”

Irene, 68, was rushed to the hospital and admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) where her condition worsened.

“She had a heart attack, and the doctor told us that we should get anyone close to the family in right away,” says Melissa.

A virulent infection had invaded Irene’s respiratory system, and she was put on a ventilator to help her breathe. Her brain was becoming oxygen deprived and permanent brain damage loomed large.

Irene remained in the ICU on a ventilator and a feeding tube for almost three weeks until she began to stabilize. Her doctor recommended she be transferred to Good Shepherd Specialty Hospital in Bethlehem where the staff specialize in ventilator weaning and medically complex cases, like Irene’s. Upon admission, she had diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and a history of smoking.

Irene was put on an aggressive regimen of antibiotics administered intravenously. But a secondary infection further complicated Irene’s case, making it difficult for her caregivers to wean Irene off the ventilator.

“I was fighting for my life,” says Irene. “I put on 60 pounds of fluid before arriving at Good Shepherd. My legs were so swollen I couldn’t even pick them up in the bed.”

Unable to breathe on her own, much less get out of bed, Irene required total care. She continued to get nutrition through a feeding tube. Suzanne Zienkiewicz, PT, did what therapy she could while Irene was in bed. But Irene reached the point where the medical team needed to withhold the antibiotics so they did not build up in her system.

The infection showed no signs of letting up.

“It seemed to be getting worse,” says Talissa Slater, RN. “It was wiping her out, and we could not get her off the ventilator. The only thing I could do was make her comfortable.”

Unable to speak because of the tracheotomy, Irene became grateful for the little things that were the hallmarks of deeply compassionate care.

“Talissa washed my hair and she put on real nice music. That means a lot when you’re that sick,” says Irene.

The prospect of Irene being ventilator dependent and living her life in a long-term care facility was discussed among Good Shepherd staff and her family.

“I told my mother, ‘You’re going to have to start fighting harder,” says Melissa. ‘We are looking for long-term care. You don’t want this.’ I think she felt defeated, but I told her, ‘You’re not going to have this for the rest of your life. Get out of that bed.’ She looked at me, and her eyes got wider.”

One last attempt was made with another round of antibiotics and a high level of steroids. The drugs and her family’s encouragement proved to be the turning point. Good Shepherd’s respiratory therapy staff weaned Irene from the ventilator, and within a couple of days, she was standing by her bed with someone supporting her.

“I’m a tough old lady,” says Irene. “I was determined because I wanted to dance at my son David’s wedding.”

Once out of bed, Irene began working with her therapists to build her strength to tolerate three hours of daily therapy required at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown, where she recovered for three weeks.

For the following two months, Irene received therapy for a dropped right foot and to improve her memory at Good Shepherd’s East Greenville outpatient site, only 20 minutes from her home.

Irene’s family has been a constant source of strength and support through her ordeal. Irene has come back from the brink, and greets each day grateful to be alive. Best of all, Irene did what she set out to do; she danced at her son’s wedding.

“I had good people taking care of me,” says Irene. “I’m alive because of them. Good Shepherd is my savior.”

To learn more about rehabilitation after a serious injury or illness, call 1-888-44-REHAB (73422) or contact us online.