THE WOODLANDS, Texas - Michelle Tate is back on her feet after an alarming ordeal.
She started getting sick, shortly after moving to the Houston area during our epic snowstorm in February.
"I thought it was like common cold because I had come from California originally, I had never seen snow before. I thought maybe it was super cold and I needed my body to adjust to the Texas weather," explains Michelle, but she just kept getting worse. "I was sick for about thirty days, a month, and then I passed out at home," she states.
Her daughter rushed to a neighbor for help. They called an ambulance that raced her to Memorial Hermann at The Woodlands Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Michelle ended up in the hospital for four months – three of them in a coma.
"My colleague, who was initially taking care of her, and I were very worried from the minute she hit the door that she was going to end up on the ventilator within a few hours," states Dr. Daniel Kievlan, the Director of Critical Care who took on Michelle's severe case of COVID-19 at Memorial Hermann.
He says she did end up on a ventilator, but that still wasn't enough. They feared she would have to undergo a double lung transplant, and decided to try a high-tech device to spare her life.
"Our only option was to proceed with Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation or ECMO, which is an advanced life-saving mortality that isn't perfect for every patient, but we felt like the balance of risks and benefits for Mrs. Tate, that we had to give it a shot," says Dr. Kievlan.
ECMO is a heart-lung machine that involves a huge cannula.
"It's about the width of a garden hose and it goes into the internal jugular vein and then snakes down to the big blood vessel that returns blood to the heart, the vena cava, and it has two points of access, where it pulls blood out, and then runs it through our ECMO circuitry and then actually returns through the same big catheter in her neck and then shoots the blood directly back into the right side of the heart," says Dr. Kievlan.
"I went to sleep and then when I woke up, it was at the end of July. I was hungry, oh I was hungry! But I was asleep. I don't remember any of it. I don't remember them transporting me. I don't remember. I was asleep the entire time, the entire time," reminisces Michelle.
Every muscle in her body had atrophied and she couldn't walk and could barely talk. This is the first time the hospital had ever gotten a patient up on their feet with ECMO and it took about a dozen people to pull it off.
"You have to keep the body straight and then make sure that doesn't move because it's attached to a main artery. My body had to wake up, so the way I taught myself is like, okay, Michelle, you're Frankenstein. So you’ve got to wake up. So, I'd talk to my arms and legs," recalls Michelle.
"She was like an astronaut who had been up in space for months that losing muscle mass because she's not having to fight gravity," states Dr. Kievalan.
The doctor was on a mission to get this mom home to her family.
"I couldn't help but be wrapped up and thinking like I have to get this mother home to her daughter in the same way that I would hope if something ever happened to my wife, the team would do the same thing. And that came with certain stress and fear in working with Michelle, but it also came with great reward the day that we were able to do one of her physical therapy sessions outside in our children's park and she was able to see her daughter for the first time in several months. That's a memory that I'll carry to my grave, knowing that I did a wonderful thing and I helped the person in a fantastic way," smiles Dr. Kievlan.
Michelle underwent months of physical and speech rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann in The Woodlands. She was so touched from their high-tech-skills and TLC, that she switched careers to work for the hospital that saved her life.
"Once you almost die, things really kind of put things in perspective. You know, I don't get mad at traffic," she laughs.
"Michelle is an amazing person. The fact that she wanted to get vaccinated before she left the hospital and use her story as one to encourage other people that this disease is serious, even if you're a 40 year old woman who teaches Zumba and is otherwise healthy, you can be laid low by this. That's one amazing aspect of her," says Dr. Kievlan.
He says the other is Michelle taking this harrowing experience to switch careers and work for Memorial Hermann as a Patient Screener. Michelle says she'll be forever thankful to her medical team and for her new career, working with the people who saved her life.
"I love it. I'm just getting past the stage so happy to be alive," smiles Michelle. With so much to live for and quite a story to share with others, she wants to continue to be a shot of hope. She encourages others to consider a COVID-19 vaccine, so that they don’t have to experience what she went through.