Against all odds, a COVID survivor returns home
At age 70, Betty Murrell is a survivor. She’s dealt with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, kidney and heart failure. In spite of it all, she’s an active grandmother and great-grandmother who enjoys living next door to her daughter, Lynn.
In March, Betty began feeling ill and shortness of breath. Her husband, George, took her to the emergency room, where she tested positive for the flu. Not long after, she also tested positive for COVID-19.
A cascade of complications followed. She was placed on a ventilator, her heart stopped and surgeons placed an internal defibrillator.
Betty spent a month in intensive care, battling for her life. When she stabilized, her family chose Select Specialty Hospital – Northern Kentucky for its experience caring for patients with complex respiratory needs.
Betty arrived with a high-flow oxygen mask, airway support and a feeding tube. At night, she required a ventilator. Weak from the viral fight, Betty was confused and unable to care for herself.
She was immediately placed in isolation, with a single nurse and respiratory therapist dedicated to her care each shift. They worked around the clock, in full personal protective equipment (PPE), to give Betty a chance.
Because of the coronavirus, visitation was restricted and Lynn admitted it was extremely difficult not being able to be with her mom.
“We’re an extremely close family,” Lynn said. “We understand it is what is needed, but it has made it hard.”
Though the coronavirus is new, the hospital’s approach to caring for medically complex patients on ventilators has been practiced for more than 20 years.
Betty’s dedicated therapists monitored her oxygen flow. Nurses launched a mobility program, assisting her with sitting at the bed’s edge. Some studies have shown that these simple movements can help patients liberate from the ventilator.
Betty rallied. After testing negative twice, she was released from isolation – a turning point for the whole family.
“The staff coordinated a FaceTime call with us,” Lynn said. “It was wonderful seeing her and having her see us,” Lynn said. “Her voice was still really weak, but she was smiling and waving...it meant the world to us.”
A physician-led team, including nurses and therapists, adjusted Betty’s care plan to focus on healing and recovery.
Nurses and physical therapists continued helping Betty sit up until she could do it alone. She attempted to stand and take a few steps. Occupational therapists worked with her on both her gross and fine motor skills, strengthening her arms, hands and fingers to help perform everyday tasks, like holding a fork or a pencil.
During her therapy sessions, the team would get Betty’s husband on a video call to watch and cheer her on.
Respiratory therapists worked with Betty on coughing and chest exercises to strengthen her lungs. A valve was inserted into her breathing tube, allowing more normal speech. Growing stronger, Betty was able to have all breathing support removed and speak in a strong voice.
That day, staff held the phone up to Betty so she could speak with Lynn.
"It melted my heart,” she said. “I told her to keep fighting to get better, and she replied, ‘I am getting there. I will be home soon.’”
Speech therapists helped reinforce her speech and led Betty through mouth, tongue and jaw exercises to restore Betty’s swallowing ability, beginning with soft foods. Therapists also worked with her on problem solving and cognitive tasks to enhance her mental clarity.
After two months at Select Specialty Hospital, Betty was ready to take the next step in what her family calls a miraculous recovery. She left for a skilled nursing facility, where she will continue to build strength and endurance.
“If others asked me for advice, I would suggest … ‘don't lose hope and take advantage of any support system offering help,’” Lynn said. “I would also recommend that all families have the tough conversations with loved ones before anything happens during these uncertain times. It is important to know what they would want and it will help reduce the stress of making the hard decisions if you know their desires.”
Lynn said that most of all she’s looking forward to giving her mother a big hug.
“Just to see her in person will be amazing,” she said.