A Fighting Chance: Harry's Story

When Harry Drake blew out his birthday candles on January 8, 2017 he was looking forward to what life had in store for him in his 53rd year. He had recently purchased his first home in Maple Shade, New Jersey, allowing him to have plenty of space to work on his carpentry hobbies while enjoying the serenity of having his first-ever backyard. As a carpentry teacher at a local middle school, Harry was looking forward to finishing second semester projects with his students before preparing to enjoy a relaxing summer vacation. Unknown to him, the first few months of 2017 would prove to be the most challenging he had ever experienced.

“I found myself dealing with a persistent cough, and overall I was feeling lousy,” shares Harry about what brought him to his local urgent care center on January 16, 2017. “After being directed to go to the emergency room, it became a struggle to breathe. I remember walking into the emergency room explaining my situation, and then I remember nothing else until weeks later.”

Harry’s health began to deteriorate so rapidly that he became hypoxic shortly after arriving at his regional emergency room, leading him to be placed on a ventilator while in an induced medial coma. Within days of being admitted, a decline in health brought on the onset of steady fevers spiking to 104 degrees while his medical team struggled to tame the infection wreaking havoc. After a week and a half of care at his local hospital following a minor heart attack and the onset of sepsis, doctors explained to his family that there was very little they could do for his recovery, due to the enormous amount of stress the illness had on his body. His only chance for survival was to be placed on ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation), an open-heart surgery that uses a machine to take over the work of the lungs and heart, serving as life-support. Or they had the option of choosing to prepare to goodbye.

Knowing the strong reputation Penn Medicine has for being able to care for medically complex cases, Harry’s family requested for him to be transferred to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center (PPMC) in an attempt to save his life. Within an hour, Harry was airlifted via PennSTAR to PPMC, to undergo emergency ECMO surgery.

“There was no other option but Penn Medicine. Our family wasn’t ready to give up a chance of his recovery, but we needed help,” says Patrice Bendig, Harry’s niece. “We needed a team that was willing to not give up either, and we found that at Penn.”

After several hours of landing at PPMC, the cardiac care team adjusted the ventilator settings and medication, stabilizing Harry so that he did not have to be placed on ECMO. Under the care of the medical team at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU), multiple interventions started to treat the infections in his bloodstream and to improve the diminished lung capacity related to the stress brought on by staph pneumonia. While trying to find the reason behind his hypertensive crisis and Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) during a cardiac cauterization, doctors discovered Harry had three vessel disease which would require a triple bypass surgery. Because of his ventilator-dependent state and comprised health, the surgery was on standby until Harry’s infections were cleared up and his breathing was independent. To relieve stress from his heart while recovering, doctors inserted an intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP) to help the heart pump blood.

Three weeks after slipping into his health crisis, Harry began the process of waking up from the coma while doctors continued to identify the source of fevers while in the CICU, allowing for the first time a full evaluation the extent of the damage. From weeks of lying motionless in bed, Harry’s body had become so deconditioned that he could barely raise his finger to point. In order to be able to undergo triple bypass surgery, he needed to make massive strides in his physical abilities. Knowing that time was against him, Harry’s family requested acute physical rehabilitation services as soon as he was cleared by his medical team.

It seemed impossible that physical therapy could take place by the bedside of a patient who barely able to move and only recently out of coma, but the acute therapy team at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center specializes in early intervention rehabilitation. Each day, Harry worked with physical therapists and occupational therapists to relearn how to use every muscle in his body—muscles that most take for granted. Over the next two weeks, Harry’s body began to gain more stamina and flexibility. Eventually liberated from the ventilator, he worked on sitting up in his hospital bed, sitting in a chair, and using a walker to get to the toilet. Acute speech therapists worked with Harry to adjust to being off the ventilator for the first time in almost a month. Through therapy, he was reintroduced to eating solids, learning how to swallow liquids without choking, and speaking clearly again.

“It was terrifying to realize that he couldn’t even lift up his hand to point when he initial woke up. But each day during therapy, a little bit of his body and personality began to resurface,” says Patrice about the impact acute therapy had on her uncle. “He went from relying on a hoyer lift and two nurses to get him out of bed, to being able to use a walker when going to the bathroom in a matter of days because of the activation therapy was having on his body."

After six weeks of hospitalization, Harry underwent a successful triple bypass surgery, allowing him to begin the next phase of his recovery – inpatient rehabilitation at Penn Rehab. Knowing nothing about physical rehabilitation except for what he experienced in an acute setting, Harry knew that this was the last hurdle for him to return home after three months.

“My goal during therapy was to get back to doing things for myself,” says Harry about his rehabilitation goals. “I realized that this was a second chance at life so I wanted to become healthy enough to be prepared to go back to my life and get better".

At Penn Rehab, Harry’s therapy increased to three hours daily, which built on the foundation set by his acute therapy team at PPMC. As a teacher, Harry often stressed importance of hard work and dedication in the classroom, especially when the material was challenging. Now relearning how to control his own body, Harry found himself as a student—learning and being encouraged by his therapy team.

“In physical therapy, my therapist Dennis found ways for me to make progress during each session, even when I was feeling discouraged,” says Harry. “Because of the work I did was my therapy team while I was in the hospital, I knew how important it was to participate in therapy in order to get back home.”

Because of his long hospitalization and open heart surgery, Harry had to work on reversing his muscle weakness. In order to improve his overall function and mobility, he had to strengthen his muscles to make moving less difficult. Through his rehabilitation experience, Harry learned not only how important exercises were both in and out of the therapy gym, but also about listening to his body in order to continue his progress.

“At Penn Rehab, I learned how each exercise was helping my body and ways I could maximize my energy and ability,” says Harry about the knowledge he gained during therapy. “Being able to anticipate my needs and plan ahead helped me to be more successful rather than become frustrated.”

Through a combination of acute and inpatient therapy, in addition to the guidance of his medical team at PPMC, Harry returned home in early March after two months of hospitalizations. After continuing his rehabilitation and several weeks of home care therapy, Harry once again regained a part of his life that had seemed unattainable— returning to the classroom in May 2017.

“No one believes I was near death just a few months ago,” says Harry. “Getting back into the classroom, it was exciting to see how my students continued to develop while I was ill. While working on their end-of-year projects, I realized that we all did a lot of growing this school year.”