Connecticut Hospital Saves Critically Ill COVID-19 Patient, Prompts Vaccinations

Scrolling through his social media feed, Robert Gallagher, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon at Trinity Health of New England, saw something that caught his eye: a Florida woman appealing to hospitals around the country for help. Susan Walker, whose husband Robby had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and intubated, was seeking a treatment called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. With ECMO, a patient’s blood is pumped outside of the body to a machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back in, essentially acting as an external set of heart and lungs. This gives the patient’s organs a fighting chance to recover, although the survival rate is only 50% to 60%. It was Robby’s best chance for survival after pneumonia spread to both of his lungs.

Walker’s hospital in Florida did not have ECMO treatment available, reflecting a larger trend across the state as an influx of COVID-19 patients take up these critical resources. Most of those hospitalized patients are unvaccinated. Susan Walker got her family together and started calling around to hospitals — 169, to be exact — but got nowhere. That’s when Dr. Gallagher reached out, kicking off the Walkers’ 1,200-mile medical flight to Trinity’s St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut.

“I thought about the hardship this family was going through and their inability to provide care for their loved one,” Gallagher said in an interview with WFSB-TV News in Hartford, Connecticut.

Walker’s story is a familiar one. His family believes he contracted the virus during Fourth of July festivities. Shortly after the holiday, all 11 of the unvaccinated family members who gathered also tested positive. “We let our guard down … and we were blindsided. It spread like wildfire,” said Susan Walker, in a CNN interview. She had contracted COVID-19 in December and believed antibodies would protect her; plus, many in the family distrusted the vaccine and took solace in the fact that businesses were reopening without mask restrictions. Robby Walker, age 52, was the only family member hospitalized, underscoring the unpredictable nature of COVID-19.

Robby Walker spent 22 days on ECMO at St. Francis Hospital until his lungs and heart were strong enough to begin supporting him, at which point he began rehab at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare. Gallagher’s intervention likely saved Robby’s life. The ordeal inspired dozens of his family members, friends and acquaintances to get the vaccine, and now Robby is a firm proponent. “Hindsight, 100%, I would do it,” he said. “I can’t thank him enough for saving my life and that Dr. Gallagher took a chance on me.”