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Doctors resort to Hail Mary option to save coronavirus patient after a ventilator failed

Nick Wilson was in two hospitals over the course of 24 days, battling the virus.

SAN ANTONIO — A 30-year-old San Antonio man survived the coronavirus even after a ventilator couldn't help him. Instead, doctors used a machine some are calling a last-resort Hail Mary option to save lives.

A team of dedicated healthcare workers at ground zero for the coronavirus inside Methodist Hospital treated Nick Wilson en route to full recovery. 

"I am just so glad to be back healthy," he said.

His battle with the virus almost cost him his life. The 30-year-old was in two hospitals for 24 days.

"I was struggling to get any air into my lungs," he said. "Unfortunately, that was when my mom was going to pick up my dad from the hospital. So I had to wait until she got back."

The same day he couldn't breathe, his father was getting out of the hospital, finishing his own battle against COVID-19. Meanwhile, Wilson's mother was recovering at home after she herself was diagnosed with the virus.

"That is probably where I got it from," he said.

Before fully recovering at Methodist Hospital in the specialized coronavirus floor, he was treated at Northeast Baptist Hospital. He wasn't doing well. Doctors put him on a ventilator, but that wasn't working, either. 

"I didn't believe in giving up on anything," he said.

Doctors had to make a major life-saving decision, and quick. He vaguely remembers a FaceTime call with his mother.

"My mother was trying to encourage me to be stronger than the disease," he recalled.

With a high chance of dying, Wilson was sent to Methodist Hospital, where coronavirus patients are being treated with an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machine. It was previously also used to treat patients during the 2009 swine flu outbreak. 

The ECMO program at Methodist is one of the largest in the world based on volume. 

"You don't want to be too early and put someone on ECMO who didn't need to be on ECMO," said Jeff Dellavolpe, the program's executive director at Methodist. "You don't want to go too late and miss the opportunity to save someone that you could have saved."

ECMO was used on Wilson because his lungs were failing. The machine requires tubes to be placed into a vein or artery.

"One that sucks blood out of the body; it puts oxygen into the blood and it puts that blood with oyxgen right back into the body," Dellavolpe said. "It can help patients (with) lung and heart failure to recover."

"It didn't feel all the strange at the time," Wilson said. "I barely noticed it."

An army of staff work around the clock to take care of Wilson and other very sick patients.

"This is really medicine at it finest," Dellavolpe said. "It is people who are truly dedicated to helping people. It is inspiring."

Wilson was on the machine for three days. It was a success.

"I was breathing fine," he said. "It was kind of amazing how quickly I got better. You don't want to get into this disease. It might not hit you as hard as it hit me. But, it can hit anyone of us as hard."

Methodist Hospital has treated 11 patients. Five of them are still on ECMO. Four, including Wilson, survived. Two didn't make it. 

Wilson has been home for a week in self-isolation.

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