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‘We Probably Called Over 50 Places’: A COVID Patient's Dire Search For One ECMO Machine

 Doctors wanted to put 32-year-old Glenn Gotay ECMO, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. But no places would take him.
Doctors wanted to put 32-year-old Glenn Gotay ECMO, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. But no places would take him.

The text message Shanel Garrell got from Glenn Gotay was hard to make out, almost like a child had written it. Like many parents, the 32-year-old Gotay was worried about his 7-year-old daughter Natalie starting school.

“It says, ‘Can you please make sure that Natalie teacher likes her,’” said Garrell. who co-parents Natalie with Gotay. “So, yeah, even on about to get intubated, he was caring about her.”

Gotay, a father of three, is in the intensive care unit at Osceola Regional Medical Center, where a machine has been breathing for him since July 31.

When things got really bad for Gotay, doctors talked about putting him on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. It’s a machine that pumps blood out of your body, oxygenates it and pumps it back in. It acts as an artificial heart and lungs to buy patients more time to beat the virus.

But Garrell and her stepmother, Tina Kuga Garrell, say they couldn’t find a center that would take Gotay.

“So, we were calling all over at different hospitals: Pensacola, Gainesville, Mayo, all of them,” Kuga Garrell said.

“So, we probably called over 50 places,” Garrell added.

COVID-19, and especially the highly contagious delta variant, are making younger patients like Gotay sicker. More of these patients are candidates for ECMO because they are young, but there aren’t enough adult ECMO beds in Florida to meet the demand.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, recently spoke to Pinellas County commissioners about the shortage.

“What I also heard ... is that we are now out of adult ECMO capacity in the Tampa Bay region,” Choe said. “And what ECMO is is it’s a cardiopulmonary bypass for severely damaged lungs. And there is no capacity for this at this time.”

ECMO is an extremely specialized treatment that is not done at every hospital. Data from the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization, a nonprofit organization that tracks data on ECMO centers worldwide, shows there are 379 patients on ECMO in the country.

“Patients have been transported a lot of miles to get access to ECMO care,” says Christine Stead, CEO of the organization. “I think there was one recently in Florida that went up to Connecticut for care where there’s capacity right now.”

Her organization sets up exchanges so ECMO centers can loan each other equipment. Stead says the nonprofit is also trying to figure out why the death rate of COVID-19 patients on ECMO has recently increased to about 48 percent.

“That can be a variety of things, including patient selection,” Stead said. “So, that varies, too, depending on where you are and what kind of resources you have. Some hospitals, once you get really busy, they have to make different kinds of decisions.”

As of Friday, Gotay is still in the ICU with a tracheostomy. A machine is still breathing for him, but now the breathing tube goes through a hole in his neck.

Gotay was not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. His family says he got the first dose about a week before he got sick.

Garrell says that on the day Gotay told her he tested positive for COVID-19, she went and got vaccinated herself.

“I mean, learning from all this – get vaccinated,” Garrell said. “Also, get your affairs in order because if you don’t have insurance, if you don’t have a health care proxy, you really have to get everything in order even if you are young. You don’t know what could happen to you tomorrow.”

Gotay does not have health insuranc, sso the family is trying to raise money for his care on GoFundMe.

WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, a statewide collaborative reporting on health care.

Health reporting on WMFE is supported in part by AdventHealth.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.