The DeFinis family of Bedminister was not anti-vax. But they were vaccine-hesitant.
Youngest son Joseph was required to be vaccinated for work. Dad Kevin DeFinis’ doctor advised him to get the vaccine, because he has a stent in his heart. But then Kevin experienced nerve damage in the arm that was vaccinated. And a relative had been admitted to the hospital with a blood clot in her lungs a few days after she got the vaccine.
So the rest of the DeFinis family — oldest son Nicholas, middle son Andrew, and Mom Amy —decided not to get vaccinated, keeping their social circles small, working from home, and only leaving the house to go to the gym or supermarket. They made it through nearly two years of the pandemic.
But in late November of 2021, the whole family got colds with various degrees of symptoms. Andrew was the last one to get sick. His family members recovered, but Andrew, a healthy, 30-year-old non-drinker, non-smoker, bodybuilder, got worse. His cold-like symptoms ramped up, his breathing became shallow, and he was spitting up blood. The family rushed him to Doylestown Health’s Urgent Care. From there, they were sent to the Emergency Department at Doylestown Hospital.
Amy will never forget how they were greeted by a hospital healthcare worker in full protective gear. They were told that Andrew would need to be isolated. Amy would have to leave her son. She kissed him goodbye and was not permitted to see him again for 10 days.
Andrew was put on 4 liters of oxygen, but this quickly increased to 15. Andrew’s doctors tried other methods of oxygenating his blood, but he could not tolerate them. Andrew would have to go on a ventilator.
Andrew was still not receiving the oxygen he needed on the ventilator. His doctor, pulmonologist Dr. Jameel Durrani, observed that he looked very gray. He decided that Andrew would need the highest level of life support — the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine. This device is a modified heart-lung bypass machine that pumps blood outside the body to an artificial lung where it is oxygenated and then returned back into the body.
Racing Against Time
There are only 764 ECMO machines in the entire world: 356 of those are in the U.S., and only 28 of them are available in the tri-state area. Dr. Durrani reached out to the closest facilities with ECMOs. There was a machine available at a downtown Philadelphia hospital, but only because six of the other candidates ahead of Andrew had passed away.
Relief at locating an ECMO was fleeting, because the family then had to come to terms with the reality that Andrew might not even survive the flight to the city to receive treatment. Given the severity of Andrew’s COVID symptoms, he had a 50-50 chance. Andrew recalls dreaming of his helicopter ride, and then his doctor telling him that he was DOA- Dead on Arrival. Thankfully, his family received the call at 10:30 that night that he had made it.
Now Andrew had to make progress on the ECMO. If he did not after a few months, the family was told that they should consider taking him off of the machine and letting someone else use it. For two-and-a-half months, Andrew lay in a medically induced coma with tubes snaking in and out of his body. His family remained on constant vigil, despite the long, daily trek into Philadelphia.
Andrew got an infection from one of the tubes, and that led to pneumonia. He rallied with the help of a round of antibiotics. His hand wasn’t getting oxygenated, and the DeFinis family learned that losing limbs was a danger for COVID patients. He contracted a urinary tract infection from his catheter which developed into pneumonia and then into sepsis.
Despite these constant challenges and scares, Andrew managed to stabilize on the ECMO. He told his parents that during his time in the coma, he had “a thousand dreams.” In his severely weakened state and suffering multiple side effects like neuropathy — leg and foot pain from the long-term sedation — Andrew would have to learn to walk, talk, and eat again. He returned to Doylestown Hospital to begin his recovery.
Road to Recovery
Recovery was not assured. Amy knew that many patients on the Intermediate Care Unit (IMU) floor had lost their fight with COVID. She is grateful for Doylestown Health pulmonologist Dr. Carlos Sotelo, who was there to oversee Andrew on this leg of his journey. Dr. Sotelo and the DeFinis family developed a strong bond. Amy credits her faith and the support and medical expertise of Andrew’s care team with getting them through this terrible time.
After two-and-a-half weeks in the IMU, fighting depression and the residual health effects of his illness, Andrew focused on moving one floor down into the MossRehab wing of the hospital. He was comfortable in gyms and wasn’t intimidated by physical rehabilitation.
At Moss, he underwent three hours of rehab a day, including physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Andrew learned to walk with a walker and practiced climbing a small staircase. He went through simulations of getting in and out of a shower, which requires a lot of core strengthening. At times, his efforts were frustrating and exhausting. But his progress was rewarding.
Just over two weeks in at Moss — and after a total of five months in hospital — Andrew insisted on going home. Visiting nurses and physical therapy services were arranged for his convalescence. Cheering, clapping Doylestown Health employees lined all three floors of the Gorsky Atrium to wish him well. And Andrew rolled out of the hospital, a survivor.
Andrew can now look to rebuilding his life. His dog died while he was in the hospital. But his brothers have bought him a new puppy to greet him at home. The dining room remains decorated for Christmas, because Andrew missed that holiday, and his family was determined to celebrate it with him.
Amy worries about the mental health of her entire family. For many months, they have ridden this roller coaster together. Any time Amy’s phone rang, everyone would tense, fearing bad news from the hospital. Anxiety ran so high that even after Andrew had stabilized, his brothers ordered their mom to change her ringtone, because they associated it with fear and dread.
“I need people to know,” says Amy, “that COVID is real and it’s vicious. Please get vaccinated.”
About Doylestown Health
Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health has 271 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.