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A Florida father who received care from Covid-19 1,200 miles away goes home months later. This is what he wants you to know



But Robby Walker is alive, a feat some doctors didn’t expect two months ago. And while the 52-year-old struggles to utter long sentences, he now uses his voice to try to keep others from suffering as he did.

Then a doctor in Connecticut was seen the excited interview of Susan and decided to help.

Now, after three weeks at ECMO and a month learning to walk again, Robby is back in Florida this week, on a new mission.

A different life after Covid-19

Before Robby fell ill in July, he was a strong, sturdy construction entrepreneur who worked out at the gym and ran 5 miles every day.

“Fifty-two years ago, I did pretty much everything I wanted,” Robby told CNN. “Now, I’m very limited.”

Scarred lungs and reduced lung capacity mean he can only speak in short, interrupted sentences before he has to catch his breath. He also lost more than 50 pounds while hospitalized as his muscles eroded.

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Even brushing your teeth is now a struggle.

“Sitting in a chair is probably a 5 or 6 minute test,” Robby said.

“If I stand up, I’ll have to take a break between the two. So it’s a little longer,” he said.

“It takes a lot more energy to hold on. I can go from sitting in a chair to standing and my heart rate will jump from 20, 30 beats per minute.”

After his ECMO treatment at Saint Francis Hospital in Connecticut, Robby spent a month in physical therapy at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare about 30 miles away.

He re-learned to walk and practiced basic self-care with the help of an assistant. But you still need a walker to get around, and small tasks can be exhausting, even after a break.

“Once your heart rate goes down and your breathing goes straight, you’re still exhausted,” he said. “Physically. It just takes a lot of energy to do that.”

But it is worth celebrating even with life.

“I was told he was dying”

On July 25, Robby called his wife from the Florida hospital bed and told her he had made a decision that destroyed the bowels.

“I had signed the papers to be intubated,” Susan said.

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Some Covid-19 patients who put on ventilators do not survive the disease. His last calls to his families before intubation are the last.

“He cried and told me how unfortunate he was not to get shot,” Susan said. “And he begged me to get vaccinated.”

She did. But it was too late to protect her husband, whose condition was deteriorating.

“I was told he was dying,” Susan said. And the ECMO treatment Robby needed was not available.

Susan told her story on CNN in August. Hours later, a doctor 1,200 miles away was checking his Facebook channel and saw a CNN post with a video clip of Susan’s interview.

“I just clicked on it and I saw it and … it was pretty convincing,” said Dr. Robert Gallagher, head of cardiothoracic surgery at Trinity Health in New England.

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Cardiothoracic surgeons operate on diseases of the chest, including the heart and lungs. By the time patients with Covid-19 arrive in Gallagher, they are usually in terrible condition and often need ECMO.

He forwarded Susan’s interview to the head perfusionist, which runs ECMO machines. And he immediately wanted to help.

“I said,‘ Okay, how are we going to find this family? ”Angela Sakal, the chief perfusionist at Connecticut’s Saint Francis Hospital, told CNN.

He got in touch with a friend from Florida who is smart on social media. “And in a couple of hours, I had Susan’s phone number,” Sakal said.

Susan Walker said she delved into retirement savings to help pay for Robby’s medical evacuation flight.

Two days later, Susan hired a medical evacuation team to fly Robby from Florida to Connecticut, intubated, sedated, and nearly dead.

When Sakal first saw Robby, she wasn’t sure she would survive.

“I can’t guarantee you a result,” he reminded Susan. “I don’t know what the future holds. But I can promise you we’ll do the best we can for him.”

ECMO is sometimes used as a last resort for patients with critical Covid-19 disease with failed lungs. It removes blood from the body, removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen to the blood, and then pumps blood into the body so that the lungs have a chance to recover.

Robby Walker’s blood is removed and returned during ECMO treatment.

Gallagher inserted the ECMO tubes into Robby’s neck. And for the next 22 days, Sakal oversaw Robby’s ECMO treatment.

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Robby is not the only previously healthy Coval-19 patient Sakal has seen needing ECMO.

With the rise of the Delta variant, Sakal said some patients with ECMO have been in their twenties.

“What we are finding is that our covid patients, even the youngest ones, are unique organ failure (and) they were previously healthy,” Sakal said. “And Covid is just destroying their lungs.”

Not everyone who follows ECMO survives. But after three weeks of drawing and returning blood, Robby’s lungs had recovered enough to support him again.

He was discharged from St. Francis in mid-September and began a month of hospital rehabilitation at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare.

Robby Walker left Saint Francis Hospital unable to stay without the help of a walker.

“My lungs have improved a bit, (but) my heart rate is still running a bit,” Robby said this week.

“I can walk alone: ​​someone is there, making sure I stand up straight. But I use a roller and I can walk a decent distance,” he said.

“I mean, I’m not going to the mall or going shopping. But now I can walk. So it’s been a big improvement.”

After a month of hard work re-learning basic skills, Robby was released from rehab on Wednesday. Most of his ECMO team at Saint Francis Hospital traveled to Gaylord to see him in Florida.

Robby Walker, his wife Susan (wearing a gray shirt) and members of the ECMO team at Saint Francis Hospital gather Wednesday to celebrate Walker’s release from rehab at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare.  Angela Sakal (far right) was Walker's main perfusionist in Saint Francis.

Sakal was there. He fought back tears when he visited his former patient.

“I remember when he first came here,” he said Wednesday. “And I saw him today, standing, talking and walking. It was amazing. It was amazing.”

A new life full of uncertainties and lessons learned

Robby’s two brothers rented an RV and drove to Connecticut to take him home with Susan. The unit would take more than 24 hours.

When he returned to Florida to restart his life, Robby said the first thing he wanted was his wife’s homemade chicken pie.

But many other aspects of his previous life will be different.

It’s unclear when Robby can get back to work, as he still needs months of rehab.

Robby Walker spent a month in rehab at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Connecticut.  Scarred lungs and reduced lung capacity make even small tasks difficult, he said.
The family also has no idea how much of the $ 1.5 million in medical bills accumulated so far in Florida and Connecticut they will owe, or how exactly they will pay it. A family friend settled in a GoFundMe account to help with Robby’s medical expenses.

And Robby doesn’t know if he’ll be able to get back to all the activities he loved.

“My goal is to get lucky with 80% or 90% where I was,” he said. But “they just don’t know enough to give any definitive answer.”

At the moment, you will not be able to go fishing or work out in the gym every day.

“I don’t have much strength,” he said, joking about fishing, “I wouldn’t want anything to pull me off the reel.”

But what it lacks in physical capacity, it has gained in new wisdom, especially when it comes to Covid-19 and vaccines.

Robby’s ordeal has inspired more than 100 friends, family and acquaintances to get vaccinated – including some who were extremely hesitant, Said Susan.

Robby said the reason he and Susan didn’t get vaccinated before is due to “a lack of education on our part.”

With countless rumors and claims spread on social media, “you no longer know what to believe,” he said. “Much of that was ignorance on our part, not to investigate further.”

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“We thought the vaccine was something that was created in a year or two. So we felt there wasn’t enough information,” he said.

“But through this journey I’ve had, we’ve discovered it (mRNA vaccine research) it has actually existed for over twenty years. “

He also mistakenly assumed that he would not get seriously ill.

“I just thought it would be like a flu. I thought it was something that affected people with underlying conditions. I didn’t have any,” Robby said.

“But for whatever reason, it affected me differently. And if I had to do it again, I would have received the vaccine when it was available to me.”

After leaving the hospital, Robby received his first dose of Modern vaccine. He had some side effects for a day, he said, but they weren’t as bad as his Covid-19 symptoms.

“There was a bit of a fever … in the early days of Covid, I had a fever bigger than that,” Robby said.

“I just didn’t have energy. I probably had a fever for a day, a day and a half. But nothing horrible compared to everything I’ve experienced.”