Overcoming a heart attack and COVID to return home
Kenneth Karr, 74, was traveling on business when he developed excruciating chest pains and profuse sweating.
He went to an urgent care clinic and was told he had the flu. After 10 days, Kenneth wasn’t improving so he went to the emergency room. There, doctors discovered Kenneth suffered a “widow maker” heart attack – so called because they are typically, instantly fatal.
Rushed into surgery, Kenneth received a stent and suffered a second heart attack that evening. He was life-flighted to a hospital in Denton, Texas. His wife, Elizabeth, was by his side the entire time.
After several days of monitoring, Kenneth was released with an external defibrillator, dubbed a life vest, to recover at his son’s home. Forty-eight hours later, the vest activated, indicating a cardiac emergency, and the family called 911. Kenneth returned to the hospital and had surgery to place a dual pacemaker/defibrillator.
Once stabilized, Kenneth and Elizabeth returned to their home in Florida.
During a routine follow-up visit with his cardiologist, Kenneth experienced shortness of breath and a dry cough. Suspecting the emerging coronavirus, he was tested for COVID-19. It was positive.
By the time Kenneth made it to the emergency room, his oxygen levels were dangerously low. Initially put on oxygen and a pressurized mask, Kenneth continued to decline and was placed on a ventilator, tracheostomy for airway support and feeding tube.
For the second time in a year, Kenneth battled for his life. To his family’s amazed delight, he beat the odds once more.
After stabilizing, Kenneth transferred to Select Specialty Hospital – Pensacola. Though alert, he was unable to speak, eat or move on his own.
A physician-led team, including nurses and therapists, created a plan to get him back to his family.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person visitation at the hospital halted. Instead, Elizabeth sent a phone to keep the couple connected.
Three times a day, a care team member helped arrange video chats.
“There were three things I told him: ‘I love you. Keep fighting. Come home to me,’” Elizabeth said. “I’m a nurse, so I know he could hear me. He remembers hearing my voice.”
Respiratory therapists worked with Kenneth on breathing, coughing and chest exercises to increase lung strength and stamina. They also gradually dropped back the ventilator’s settings, allowing his body to work on its own.
Eighteen days later, Kenneth had all airway support removed and was breathing independently.
Simultaneously, physical and occupational therapists deployed a mobility program, helping Kenneth sit up and transfer to a chair. He stood and took his first steps. Using a walker and a therapist’s support, Kenneth went farther distances until he could go more than 50 feet without help.
Speech therapists stepped in with mouth, tongue and jaw exercises to help him relearn how to eat. Kenneth tried purees and puddings first, before moving back to a regular diet.
Just after Memorial Day, Kenneth was ready to go home.
He was looking forward to getting back his woodworking hobby and enjoying his grandchildren.