Vickroy: Precious cargo calls for specially trained transport team
It started as a cold, just a common cold.
But it ended up mobilizing a team of medical experts rarely called into duty.
“These people played an intricate role in my child’s life,” said LaWanda Buckhalter-Lacy, nodding to a crowd of men and women assembled in a conference room at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn last week. “My son was at death’s door. And thanks to their efforts, he’s here right now.”
To look at 15-month-old Kristian Lacy today, one would never suspect he’d ever been ill enough to require a highly advanced emergency transport team to drive him from one hospital to another. Indeed, as members of that team recounted the fateful day last fall when Kristian’s life depended on a ride that included navigating through downtown Chicago, the happy toddler laughed and clapped and worked his way through a bag of toys.
“It’s awesome to see him now,” advanced practice nurse Nina Ortegon said.
“Yes, it’s great,” respiratory therapist Melissa Gondek said.
Both women work on the hospital’s highly advanced ECMO transport team. And both clearly remember how fragile Kristian was on Oct. 29, when a common cold led to an infection of his heart muscle and ended up causing heart failure.
“That day, I was terrified,” said Buckhalter-Lacy, who lives in Chicago Ridge with her husband, Andre Lacy, and 4-year-old son, Keshaun. “I didn’t know what to think or to expect. I’d never heard of anyone getting heart failure from a cold.”
As her son’s condition worsened, doctors at Rush University Medical Center, where Kristian was admitted, told Buckhalter-Lacy that Kristian likely needed a heart transplant and that the operation would have to be done at a hospital that specializes in transplants.
Kristian would have to be moved to Lurie Children’s Hospital.
Granted, patients are transferred between hospitals all the time. The protocol is fairly routine. An ambulance is called in, the patient wheeled out, boarded and then driven to the new location.
But when the patient is a child being kept alive by an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, or ECMO machine, everything changes.
ECMO functions as a replacement for a critically ill child’s heart and lungs. It basically works as a bypass machine. It’s used to support a child who is awaiting surgery or whose vital organs need time to recover from heart surgery or disease.
It is a wonderful advanced technology, but to move the machine requires a team of experts trained to deal with every possible obstacle, from a patient’s loosened tube to any trauma caused by a nasty pothole along the way.
Staff at Rush reached out to the pediatric and neonatal transport team at Advocate Children’s in Oak Lawn.
“We are the only facility in the region that does such pediatric transports,” said Traci Wolfe, respiratory care practitioner and ECMO specialist. “It is a very orchestrated procedure.”
As soon as the call came in, Ortegon, manager of the ECMO transport team, jumped into action.
The team typically moves about two ECMO patients a year, but Ortegon said because of the critical nature of those transports it is always rehearsing and drilling.
Moving Kristian meant moving a maze of tubes, an assortment of pumps, ventilators, monitors and IV medications. It would be no small feat, and it would require an army of personnel to accompany him.
Buckhalter-Lacy recalled standing outside, wrapped in a blanket, watching as nurses and respiratory therapists readied Kristian for the ride of his life.
“It scared me tremendously,” she said. “But everyone on staff was very reassuring and warm. I felt more at ease knowing so many people were going to be with him.”
In addition to Ortegon, Wolfe and Gondek, surgeon Dr. Michel Ilbawi, assistant clinical manager Maureen Gorszczyk and ECMO coordinator Pamela Smith also accompanied Kristian on the transport.
Four paramedics from Superior Ambulance were called to action, as well.
First, the paramedics quickly made alterations to the lead ambulance to accommodate the special size stretcher and the attached cart of equipment.
“This stretcher didn’t fit the standard lockdowns, so we had to install new lockdowns,” said Sean McGuire, one of the paramedics who helped in the transport. “We also had to install four bolts to be able to strap down the ECMO machine.”
After that, the paramedics installed new ramps to accommodate both pieces of equipment. A second ambulance was called in to carry the equipment and personnel who couldn’t fit in the first.
Finally, with a police escort on hand, the team was ready to make the move.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the drivers,” Ortegon said. “They have to keep things steady, stay close and watch the roads. The rest of us were braced for anything that could pop up along the way.”
The distance between Rush and Lurie is strewn with traffic, potholes, railroad tracks and bridges, not to mention everyday stop-and-start instigators such as traffic lights and construction.
Anthony Blazevich was behind the wheel of the ambulance carrying Kristian.
“I didn’t go over 10 or 15 mph the whole way,” he said. “Slow and steady.”
When they arrived at Lurie, they were met by another team of doctors and nurses.
That was the last the transport team saw of Kristian.
Gorszczyk said, “Usually, when we transport a patient to Christ, we can check up on him later.”
But in this case, they were getting a patient from point A to point B and then returning to their base in the Southland.
Still, the face of a vulnerable child tends to stick with medical personnel.
Having Kristian come back for a visit last week was a special treat, Gorszczyk said.
“This is a rare opportunity for us,” paramedic Mike Williams said. “It’s really nice to see that he’s doing so well.”