Saving Lives, Four Letters at a Time
Two patients share an unbreakable bond thanks to the advanced technology and expertise at UF Health Jacksonville
Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, might not be a term many recognize. But for Brandon Taylor and Luis Rios, this four-letter acronym will be something they never forget.
Why? Because it saved their lives when nothing else could.
ECMO is not CPR, a defibrillator or last-minute surgery. It is a form of life support for patients with acute heart and lung failure. It was available at the right time for Brandon and Luis.
What is ECMO?
ECMO is an advanced technology that takes blood from a patient’s body, oxygenates it through an external device and circulates it back into the body. For patients whose heart isn’t able to pump, ECMO pumps blood through their bodies for them. Patients whose lungs are giving out can’t oxygenate their blood, so ECMO does it for them, allowing the lungs to rest.
This “heart and lung machine,” as Brian Yorkgitis, DO, a UF Health TraumaOne surgeon, calls it, is a complex addition to UF Health Jacksonville’s treatment options. With the expertise and training from ECMO coordinator Bennita Young, a team was trained and ready to use ECMO in summer 2017.
An unexpected emergency
For those who don’t know their story, Brandon and his wife, Brittany, appear to have a fantastic life. They have two beautiful daughters and a gorgeous home in Kingsland, Georgia.
One would never guess this family has been through a near-death experience.
On Brandon’s commute to work on June 28, 2017, a thick fog impaired his vision when he was making a wide turn, causing him to crash into a log truck.
Brandon doesn’t remember the accident.
Brittany got a call from Brandon’s phone, receiving the horrible news from a police officer before she rushed to UF Health Jacksonville, where Brandon was being treated in the trauma unit.
Brandon had a long list of injuries, including broken bones and a dangerous brain bleed from the accident.
On July 5, 2017, Brittany was told Brandon wouldn’t make it through the night and the only option to save him would be to try ECMO.
She didn’t realize he would be the first patient at UF Health Jacksonville to be put on ECMO.
The first 24 hours Brandon was on ECMO were excruciating. The machine allowed his lungs to heal, but he wasn’t responsive.
A few days later, he blinked. Then he tried to speak. He stayed on ECMO for two weeks, but his memory and ability to function were still weak. He stayed in the intensive care unit for 31 days until transitioning to rehabilitation, where he slowly but successfully recovered.
The support from UF Health staff helped Brittany get through the waiting period. “They treated us like family. I could be downstairs getting coffee, or crying somewhere, and someone would come up, give me a hug and comfort me. They were our family while we were there.”
Yorkgitis felt a special connection with the Taylor family, as he and his wife have two daughters of their own. “We worked together and did everything we could so he could continue being a father and husband,” Yorkgitis said.
It’s been more than two years since the crash. “I feel like we’re 90% there. He gets up and goes to work every day, the kids come home from school and we do as much as we can,” Brittany said. “I don’t know what else to say other than thank you.”
Brandon is more than thankful for the team and the coincidental timing. “We were incredibly fortunate the timing aligned the way it did and that I’m able to be here and tell my story today,” he said.
Saving a lifesaver
A year and a half later, the ECMO team would’ve never thought they would have to save a colleague so dear to them.
UF Health emergency medicine physician Luis Rios Jr., MD, felt odd after work on Dec. 2, 2018. After a few overnight coughing fits, some of it including blood, he eventually felt so weak he wasn’t able to stand.
Luis’ wife, Melanie, came downstairs and saw him lying on the floor inside their home. She called 911.
While en route to the nearest hospital, Luis’ blood pressure plummeted, and his chest turned purple.
He was admitted, and a team tried everything to stabilize him, but nothing worked.
The medical staff was about to give up hope until one team member remembered a presentation on ECMO given by Joseph Shiber, MD, an emergency medicine physician and co-medical director of the ICU at UF Health North.
ECMO was the last effort in saving Luis. They prepared him to fly to UF Health Jacksonville, as he was too weak to make it through an ambulance transport.
Before they took off, Melanie repeatedly whispered to Rios, “I love you; don’t leave me.”
Her words were the only part of the night he remembers.
Once he landed at UF Health Jacksonville and was admitted to the trauma unit, the ECMO team connected him to the lifesaving machine within 18 minutes.
Luis was the 12th patient placed on ECMO at UF Health Jacksonville. The emergency physicians commonly see patients in critical condition. But this time, it was someone they knew.
“It was surreal to take care of a colleague. He is like a father figure to us all,” said Firas Madbak, MD, a surgical critical care physician and ECMO team member.
After the second day on ECMO, Luis was improving. His chest was no longer purple, and his vitals were becoming more stable. One week later, he transitioned to rehab.
Five months after he was admitted, Luis was well enough to return to the job he loves. “It’s a blessing to have him around,” Madbak said. “Every time I see him in the hallway, he gives me a hug. There’s this emotional connection, this bond that’s hard to describe.”
“I think of them every day. They’re my family,” Luis emotionally exclaimed about the ECMO team. “They pulled me out of death and brought me back to life.”
The future of ECMO
Without ECMO, Brandon and Luis would not be here today. Although it’s not a method recommended for every patient, ECMO has the potential to save more lives.
UF Health Jacksonville has four ECMO machines, and five surgeons on campus were trained by Young to use it.
“Communication is the No. 1 thing that needs to happen when a patient is being put on ECMO,” Young emphasized. “Each step in the process is important, and the team needs to be fully trained to complete each step safely and efficiently.”
This is why the physicians at UF Health Jacksonville want to ensure the community knows about it. The ECMO team conducts outreach and education for physicians and medical centers throughout the area.
Although ECMO is considered a last resort, it is an incredible approach to offering a last bit of hope.