For most American families, the Fourth of July ignites thoughts of fireworks, barbecues and outdoor fun with friends and neighbors. For the Thompsons, the summer holiday sparks memories of nurses, doctors and the intensive care unit.
It was July 3. The Thompson family, Eric, Kristen and their two young daughters Kaylee and Sarah, were getting ready to celebrate Independence Day in their close-knit Los Alamitos community. Eight-year-old Sarah was feeling a little under the weather, but was just as eager as the rest of her family for the festivities to begin.
Without warning, party preparations were interrupted by a horrific scream. Kristen raced to find her youngest seizing on the floor. She called 911, and the ambulance brought Sarah to the nearest emergency department. There, Sarah’s high heart rate led doctors to believe she had an arrhythmia. They decided to transport the young patient to CHOC Children’s Hospital.
Shortly after arriving at CHOC, Sarah’s health dramatically declined. Her heart stopped. The cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) team took turns performing CPR with high quality compressions on Sarah for 95 minutes, while another specialized team placed her on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), state-of-the-art technology that supports the heart and lungs by taking over the heart’s pumping function and the lung’s oxygen exchange.
The platinum-level Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) Award of Excellence in Life Support recognizes programs worldwide that distinguish themselves by having evidence-based processes, procedures and systems in place that promote excellence in ECLS. As a recipient of a platinum designation, CHOC is among the highest scoring institutions.
Eric and Kristen watched as 15-20 physicians, nurses and respiratory care therapists worked on their daughter; those performing CPR would rotate after a couple of minutes at the direction of critical care specialist Dr. Francis Kim. After she was placed on ECMO, Sarah was taken to the cardiac catheterization lab, where she was diagnosed with myocarditis. Inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall, myocarditis can affect both the heart’s muscle cells and its electrical system. It’s usually caused by a viral infection and if severe, can weaken the heart’s pumping action. Sarah’s family was in disbelief.
“Sarah seemed to have just a mild cold, and nothing that would have prevented her from enjoying our holiday plans. It was surreal seeing her in the ICU, hooked up to all of the equipment and surrounded by so many specialists,” recalls Kristen.
CHOC kept Sarah on ECMO for five days. Her family and friends waited around the clock, hoping the feisty girl they loved would come out of the traumatic ordeal okay. Hospital staff offered encouraging words, telling Sarah’s loved ones that she was clearly a fighter. And, a scan of her brain looked good, though a complete neurological evaluation couldn’t be completed until she was awake.
Kristen got the first glimmer of hope when, after her daughter’s breathing tube was removed, Sarah said, “I want to go home.” Soon, Sarah started to get bossy with her family members – a sign she was on the mend. Even better, her heart recovered and she suffered no neurological injuries.
Dr. Kim, the primary physician overseeing Sarah’s care, credits the skill and expertise of CHOC’s CVICU staff for her outcome — acknowledgement shared by the Thompson family. “We have an incredible, high-functioning team with vast experience in caring for the most critically-ill children. In Sarah’s case, it took skilled teamwork to put her on ECMO while performing CPR,” explains Dr. Kim. “There’s no room for error. We are thrilled she’s doing so well and has returned to pursuing all of her favorite activities.”
A straight A student, Sarah loves to read. Her dog and sister rank high on her list of favorites. She also takes jazz and hip hop classes, and plays soccer. And, she still looks forward to holiday celebrations with friends and family.
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