By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, email@example.com
As they look at their son lying in a hospital bed, Josh and Kristi Braziel can’t believe the way their lives have been turned upside down in the past three weeks.
But the fear they faced early on has been replaced by a feeling of anxious calm. That’s because Mason Braziel is finally recovering after a terrifying battle with COVID-19.
“It was a life and death situation,” Josh Braziel said about his son Mason’s condition.
One day, the high school senior was celebrating his 18th birthday with friends and going to see his beloved Chicago Cubs beat the Minnesota Twins. Two weeks later, he had machines keeping him alive.
HE’S A TOUGH GUY
The Braziels, who live in Crawfordsville, thought Mason had a fairly mild case of COVID at first. He rarely gets sick, they said, and never complains.
“A tough guy,” his dad said. “He doesn’t even do the fake sick thing to get out of school.”
When Mason, who was unvaccinated against the virus, started complaining over Labor Day weekend that he was achy, feverish and couldn’t taste or smell, Kristi knew it was likely COVID, and a rapid test confirmed it.
The self-taught guitar player and Cubs fanatic (he wears a Cubs shirt pretty much every day) quarantined in his bedroom, where he had access to a separate bathroom, and his parents dropped food at his door.
“He was just riding it out,” said Kristi, who at that time didn’t know anyone in her circle who had become seriously ill with the virus. “The doctor said the fever could last seven to 10 days. On the 11th day, I had him take his temperature again.”
It was still elevated, and he had a stubborn cough, so their physician recommended he get an outpatient X-ray at the hospital in Crawfordsville.
HIS CONDITION DETERIORATED
The short walk from the car to the hospital doors sent his oxygen levels plunging, and things began going south very quickly, Kristi said.
A hospital physician suggested Mason was a “happy hypoxic” – describing a patient suffering dangerously low oxygen saturation levels but who doesn’t appear to be in respiratory distress.
He was hooked up to a BiPAP machine to help his breathing, then transferred via Crawfordsville Fire Department to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, a decision that likely saved his life because Riley has an ECMO program, a form of heart/lung bypass for the sickest patients that not every hospital has.
It was a whirlwind for his parents, but they are counting their blessings now that their son has been at Riley for three weeks.
“The way this hit him so hard was kind of shocking, but it (COVID) is unpredictable,” Josh said.
For the first few days at Riley, Mason was stable. His parents thought maybe he was getting better.
“Then things just went to pot in a hurry,” Josh said.
ECMO SAVED HIS LIFE
Mason’s condition worsened, and he was intubated and placed on a ventilator, a desperate attempt to save his life. But within hours, it became clear that the damage to his lungs was worsening.
ECMO clinician Paula Miller explains what happened next.
“He was still not oxygenating well, not improving,” Miller said. “They were seeing damage to his lungs and air was leaking out of his lungs to surrounding tissue. You can feel that air when you palpate their skin. You can feel it popping under the skin.”
Mason’s lung tissue was becoming so damaged by how much support he was receiving from the ventilator that his care team, including Dr. Rachel Gahagen and Dr. Colin Rogerson, worried it might be irreversible.
The decision to move Mason to ECMO support was made quickly. There was no time to waste.
On Thursday evening, Sept. 23, Miller hooked Mason up to the ECMO circuit, which immediately began pumping and oxygenating his blood outside his body, allowing his heart and lungs to rest.
“I told his parents he’s OK. That’s the first thing they wanted to hear. He went on smoothly and stabilized right away,” Miller said. “The relief on their faces was just incredible. I can’t imagine what they went through just to get him to that point.”
Had Mason needed to be transported to Riley when he was that critical, the results could have been far different, Miller said.
As hard as it was to see their son hooked up to so many machines, Josh and Kristi were the tiniest bit relieved in that moment. They had heard the stories about patients going on ventilators and never waking up. ECMO at least offered them more hope.
“You look at somebody hooked up to it and it looks pretty rough, but you could tell he was more at peace because he wasn’t struggling to breathe. It was doing it for him,” Josh said.
“As overwhelming as that room was, it was so peaceful to see him with normal breathing and some color in his face,” Kristi added. “We know it saved his life, literally. That and all the prayers.”
“WE LANDED AT THE RIGHT PLACE”
Mason improved each day, and after just four days, he was ready to come off the life support machine.
Two days later, his breathing tube was removed, and this week he came off all oxygen support and was able to get out of bed and sit in a chair, then walk from the chair to the door and back with the help of an occupational therapist.
That’s how his mom put it in a text message today after seeing her son walk.
While he still has a long recovery ahead, his progress fills them with hope, pride and gratitude for his Riley team.
“From the moment we checked in here, from the doctors, to the nurses, the therapists, the ECMO team, the people at the front desk, every person here has been great,” Josh said. “We landed at the right place.”
Mason likely will move over to Riley’s inpatient rehab unit to regain his strength and mobility before going home.
“We’re just so thankful,” Kristi said. “We don’t care how long it takes. It just feels like we can exhale now.”
GET THE SHOT
After seeing what the virus did to their son, Josh and Kristi encourage everyone to get the COVID vaccine.
“You don’t want to see anybody going through what he is going through,” Josh said. “There are other people out there more important than us. Whether we think we need the vaccine or want it, it’s more about the other people.”
Miller, Mason’s ECMO clinician, has stopped in his room the past couple of nights and is thrilled with how well he is doing.
“He looks amazing.”
Mason is one of the lucky ones, she said, considering how ill he was. Not all survive.
“It’s wonderful to see a patient do this well … but all the patients we’ve seen who are this sick are not vaccinated,” Miller said, adding she hopes his story helps raise awareness of the importance of getting the shot.
“It’s just heartbreaking to know that it could have been prevented.”
The Pfizer vaccine is approved for people ages 12 and older. Approval for a lower-dose vaccine for children 5-11 is expected yet this year.
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org