Jeffrey M. Carlton Heart & Vascular Institute
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ECMO saves Richart Tanitsky's Life from COVID-19

For Richard Tanitsky, 2020 was off to a good start. Recently married, the 65-year old and his new bride, Patricia, were enjoying life as newlyweds—hiking, going to visiting the beach, trying new restaurants and going to the theater. They even went on a once-in-a-lifetime African safari in January. But six weeks later, Richard was in the hospital with a severe case of COVID-19.

Patricia brought Richard to Hoag when he started having trouble breathing, and his temperature spiked. The following day, Richard called Patricia, who was at home self-isolating, with the news that he would be intubated and put on a ventilator. “That day,” Richard said, “ - March 16th - was the last time Patricia heard my voice until May.”

From there, it was weeks of trying everything to abate the disease in Richard. Nothing was working, and he Richard was deteriorating quickly. After one a week of being on the ventilator, he was still unable to breathe on his own. Richard was on the verge of death, but his team at Hoag had one more card to play—extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) therapy.

One Last Hope

ECMO is sophisticated life-support technology that pumps and oxygenates the patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the lungs to rest and recover. For patients suffering from severe respiratory issues or heart failure, ECMO can be life-saving. Thanks to generous donor support, in 2017 Hoag became the first facility in Orange County to acquire offer the advanced equipment for the adult patients. It is an important part of the Jeffrey M. Carlton Heart & Vascular Institute’s Advanced Heart Failure Program.

Running an ECMO program requires significant skill and resources, including an expansive, specially trained team. That is, in part, why ECMO is typically only available at tertiary or academic medical centers, not community hospitals. The power of philanthropy makes it possible at Hoag.

Because information around COVID-19 was still developing, there was little national consensus nationally about when ECMO should be used in patients with the disease, if at all. But Bhavini Jaiswal, M.D., director of Hoag’s ECMO Program, knew it was Richard’s only option.

“It was early in the pandemic, so there was a lot of uncertainty in the unknown. Some large medical centers with ECMO programs were declining to place COVID patients on ECMO. But Hoag being Hoag meant we weren’t going down without a fight,” said Dr. Jaiswal.

Fighting for His Life

ECMO isn’t is not appropriate for everyone, but Richard’s overall good health made him a strong candidate. As soon as Patricia gave her official approval, Code ECMO was activated. 20 clinical team members across various specialties, including radiology, surgery, critical care and fluoroscopy, sprang into action. “Initiating and running ECMO requires a tremendous amount of collaboration,” explained Dr. Jaiswal. “And the patient must be monitored around the clock.”

“This is another example of how philanthropy sets Hoag apart,” adds Anthony Caffarelli, M.D., surgical director of Hoag’s ECMO Program and the Newkirk Family Endowed Chair in Aortic Care. “Without the funding for the equipment, the personnel, and essential education and training, Mr. Tanitsky would not be alive today. ECMO doesn’t happen often, but when it does, everything we do is critical. It is the ultimate display of teamwork in the hospital, and philanthropy enables our success.”

At the time, Hoag’s two ECMO machines were the only ones in Orange County, so Richard was transferred to Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica to maintain Orange County’s ECMO capacity for other critical patients. Richard remained on ECMO there for another three weeks and continued to improve over that time. “If it weren’t for ECMO and Hoag’s decision to try the therapy on Richard, he would not be here today,” said Patricia. “Everything was seamless,” she adds. “And the doctors and nurses went above and beyond to communicate with me every step of the way.”

Richard was transferred back to Hoag to continued his recovery, which included with intense physical, speech and occupational therapy. In early May, Richard was strong enough to come home.

“Every aspect of the care at Hoag was excellent,” Richard remembers. “From great facilities to compassionate nurses and therapists to doctors who were both experts and cheerleaders, sometimes it didn’t even feel like being in a hospital. Thanks to Hoag, if people saw me today and didn’t know what happened to me, they would have no idea what I went through.”

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