Robert's Story

Surviving complex medical crises

Robert Breen has been battling chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) for several years. A longtime smoker, his breathing deteriorated until supplemental oxygen was needed. In addition, he struggled with cirrhosis, chronic heart failure and blood clots.

When doctors began a new blood pressure medication, Robert had severe reaction. He swelled from head to toe, making movement painful and daily activities difficult. He hallucinated, slurred words and couldn’t answer questions. The 61-year-old could barely walk and his wife, Tina, couldn’t understand his speech, so Robert agreed to go to the hospital.

COVID restrictions prevented her from accompanying him into the ER, so she wrote a list of symptoms, illnesses and medications for Robert to give to doctors.

“After dropping him off, I went home to wait for his call,” Tina said. “Five hours later, a doctor called and told me that he had been intubated because, all of a sudden, his throat swelled shut and he could no longer breathe. This came as quite a shock to me because his breathing was fine when I dropped him off. Another doctor told me that it had happened so fast, if he hadn’t been in the ER, he might not have made it.”

For 33 days, he struggled to survive as multiple medical conditions flared. Eventually, the ventilator was discontinued and he received a tracheostomy for airway support. Tina was grateful he finally turned the corner, stabilizing enough for doctors to recommend the next step in care. She chose Select Specialty Hospital – Macomb for its experience caring for medically complex patients.

He arrived confused, unable to care for himself or move independently. A physician-led team, including nurses and therapists, created a plan for recovery.

“When I was finally able to speak with him, he would talk about things that happened 20 years ago, believing it was current, and then come back to the present. It took several days for him to stay in the present time,” Tina said.

Respiratory therapists led breathing exercises to retrain his lungs and airways. Simultaneously, physical therapists used range of motion exercises to keep blood circulating.

By week two, the tracheostomy was removed and he’d returned to supplemental oxygen.

Physical therapists simultaneously deployed a mobility program, encouraging Robert to move in bed and sit at its edge.

At first, Robert couldn’t believe therapists wanted him up and out of bed. But at the same time, he wondered if he’d be bed-ridden for the rest of his life. It was refreshing, he said, how positive the therapy staff was that he would walk again.

Soon, he could stand and pivot with two people assisting. Each day, he became steadier on his feet and used a walker in short bursts.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Robert said being unable to have visitors due to COVID-19 restrictions was tougher than any deployment. He was grateful everyone from nurses to the environmental services employees took the time to talk to him “as a person, not just about medical stuff.”

Speech therapists and dietitians coordinated on a plan to enhance Robert’s chewing, swallowing and speaking abilities while restoring a regular diet.

Robert’s voice grew stronger, he passed a swallowing study indicating resuming normal food was safe and, with the aid of occupational therapy, learned to feed himself again.

After 22 days, Robert departed for home, supported by nursing and therapy services. Grateful for the second chance at life and that hospitalization “forced” him to quit cigarettes, Robert’s committed to making the change permanent.

“I am grateful for every doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, medical assistant, nursing assistant, physical therapist and every other staff member that helped him through this very scary situation,” Tina said.