Published on March 6, 2023
Read Time: 5 Minutes
In December of 2021, life – as he knew it – changed for Ian McLendon. A severe case of COVID-19 landed the 28-year-old Dixon, Missouri, man in the hospital at Phelps Health.
“I had blood clots in my legs and a serious case of pneumonia,” said Ian, who had been otherwise healthy up to this point. “Everything kind of happened at once. I was hospitalized here [at Phelps Health] for 3 days. On day three, I was intubated on one form of life support. I was flown out to SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital on December 12. And I spent roughly 4 months on ECMO in the hospital when I got to St. Louis.”
With ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, blood is pumped outside of the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in the body. ECMO is often used in critical situations, where the heart and lungs need help to heal.
During these 4 months, Ian was in a medically-induced coma and largely unaware of his body’s battle to survive.
“I had a G-tube (gastrostomy or feeding tube) in my stomach,” Ian said. “I also had a trach (or tracheotomy, the surgical formation of an opening into the trachea through the neck to allow the passage of air), several other forms of life support, lots of medication and lots of IVs…Between the medication and the illness, I wasn’t aware of what was going on. I would wake up randomly in certain areas, not knowing where I was, scared. But for the majority of those months, I was asleep.”
Awake, but not out of the woods
“I think it was March when I finally woke up, and I started feeling a little better,” Ian said. “I started therapy, trying to get up. Just to get up out of bed was a challenge.”
However, Ian’s journey back to health was far from over.
“I was told that my lungs hadn't really recovered that well,” Ian remembered. “I was still on a ventilator. Just because I was awake didn’t mean I was going to make it. I was still unstable, and I wasn't doing well. [My care team at Saint Louis University Hospital] determined that I was probably going to need a lung transplant.”
Lung transplants aren’t performed at Saint Louis University Hospital, so a transplant coordinator starting sending out referrals to different hospitals in the area. A hospital in Chicago, Illinois, was looking like it might be Ian’s best hope.
“Chicago called at 2:00 AM and said there was a bed open for me,” Ian said. “By 5:00 AM that same morning, they had retracted the offer and said they didn't have one.”
After this latest blow, Ian was thankful to get an offer closer to home.
“Barnes-Jewish Hospital [in St. Louis] contacted me and said they were waiting for one more doctor to make the decision to move me there, so we could go ahead with the lung transplant. I ended up getting accepted and moved within that week.”
Once at Barnes, the hard work began for Ian.
“We had a lot of goals,” said Ian, on his entry to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “I was still doing therapy. I had to meet a certain physical fitness requirement and walk a certain amount of feet before I could even be considered [for a lung transplant].”
The roller coaster continues
Enter two more setbacks, followed by a positive turn of events.
“I had an infection that wasn't going to allow me to have the transplant until it cleared up,” remembered Ian. “My wife and I are at Barnes, waiting to see what's going to happen. And then, just 2 days after I get to Barnes, I have an anaphylactic reaction (a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction) to one of the antibiotics they had given me for the infection. I went into anaphylactic shock, and I coded (went into cardiopulmonary arrest). Heart stopped. Airway closed. I'm not sure how long I was out of it.
“I woke up, and I was OK, but that set me back a little further. I could still get up and move, so I kept working. I worked harder and harder. I didn't want to quit. I didn't know what was coming down the pipe. I figured I was going to have to get the transplant, but then things slowly started to improve. I ended up getting off of ECMO and eventually ended up on the Pulmonary Rehab floor.”
“I did not need a transplant,” confirmed Ian, who is now back at home in Dixon. “I'm still under the supervision of Barnes but am no longer on the active transplant list.”
On the mend
To heal his lungs, Ian began rehabilitation at the Phelps Health Cardiac and Pulmonary (Cardiopulmonary) Rehabilitation program last summer and continues to go twice a week. He is thankful to be able to complete rehab close to home, in Rolla. Located on the first floor of the Phelps Health Medical Office Building, the rehab gymnasium offers exercise equipment for patients to improve their heart and lung capacity.
When Ian began rehab, he could barely tolerate 10 minutes of physical activity. Now, he completes over an hour of exercise at a time. He described his fitness regimen.
“I walk the treadmill for 30 minutes every day I'm here and every other day at home,” Ian said. “I use the NuStep (a cross trainer), elliptical and arm crank, and I lift weights. There is a lot of equipment here, and I use all of it.”
The benefits of rehab have extended beyond physical gains for Ian.
“I like the positive reinforcement,” Ian said. “And they [respiratory therapists] motivate you. It's more than just physical therapy. They are kind of like your therapist when you are feeling grumpy. They ask you how your week went. [My team] cares about my physical and emotional needs. I’m not just another patient.”
Ultimately, rehab has resulted in an improved quality of life for Ian.
“I’ve noticed a big difference [in my lung capacity], between working at home and using the equipment here [at Phelps Health],” Ian said. “I enjoy working with the team here. I've definitely had a lot of improvement since I got out of the hospital, and I don't think it's stopping here.”
Are you struggling with the aftereffects of COVID-19 and think you might benefit from the Phelps Health Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab program? For this and other lung-related conditions, talk to your primary care provider about a referral to this program.