Friday, December 19, 2008

Home for Christmas

This year, the holiday season has an entirely new meaning for Bob and Janet Belli and their adult children Karla, Debbi, Julie, Gina and Michael. The family will gather around the Christmas tree like millions of other families across the world, but this year their gathering will be especially poignant. It was only one year ago when it was not clear if one of the family members - 36-year-old Karla Leavenworth - would survive through the holidays.

Karla Leavenworth with her daughter

Karla's ordeal began in October 2007 at her parent's home in East Longmeadow, Mass., when Janet found Karla having a severe seizure. Rushed to a local hospital's intensive care unit, Karla continued to seize for more than two hours despite large doses of anticonvulsant medications. Her condition perplexed her physicians, and when she developed an overwhelming infection and multiple organ failure, her doctors made the lifesaving decision to transport her to the Neurocritical Care Unit at Mass General.

It is here under the direction of Lee H. Schwamm, MD, vice chairman of Neurology, where her seizures were quickly and effectively treated. Schwamm and his colleagues also determined that a bacterial infection had invaded both of her lungs and had spread to all of her vital organs.

A team of intensive care experts from the departments of Medicine, Surgery, Anesthesia, Respiratory Care and Infectious Diseases collaborated upon the appropriate course of treatment. Every known medical treatment was explored. When her body failed to respond to any of these courses, Schwamm and his team added MassGeneral Hospital for Children pediatric surgeon David Lawlor, MD, for his insight.

Lawlor, an experienced and innovative pediatric surgeon, agreed that there might be a way to give Karla's body a fighting chance to recover – providing cardiac and respiratory support oxygen through extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). The MGHfC is one of only two hospitals in New England to provide this lifesaving treatment, which typically is used to care for newborns lacking a fully functioning respiratory system. ECMO oxygenates and removes carbon dioxide from the patient's blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs time to strengthen. Placing Karla on this life support system that is typically used only for newborns saved the young woman's life.

"I am certain that with ECMO, Ms. Leavenworth's life was saved," says Schwamm. "Once the machine took over, her improvement was miraculous. We are so grateful to the pediatric surgery team for being willing to make this bold attempt to save her life and to the Neuro ICU nurses who worked tirelessly around the clock caring for Karla."

With the ECMO, Karla's body was able to strengthen and begin to recover from the damage from the infection. She received ECMO treatment for 21 days and awoke shortly before Christmas last year.

At Mass General's Respiratory Acute Care Unit, Karla relearned how to speak, swallow, walk, write and do everything many people take for granted every day. "My goal for 2008 was just to survive and recover my strength from my many problems – heart surgery, infections, muscle atrophy and learning to do everything again from simply swallowing to walking. My goal for 2009 is to gain employment, find a new home for my daughter and me, and live every day with new meaning. I am so grateful for the support of my family, the Mass General doctors and nurses who took care of me and this beautiful second chance at life that I've been given."

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