Thomas' Story

Thomas sitting upright in his hospital bed, free of the ventilator.

When a sip of water signals great progress

Thomas Bowker is still serving his community at 81, volunteering at the local firehouse, doing whatever needs to be done so firefighters can focus on saving lives.

In early November, Thomas didn’t have as much energy as he used to.

“I was just doing my normal stuff, but I continued to feel bad – tired and just not right,” he said. He asked his wife, Barbara, to take him to the hospital.

Tests revealed a bloodstream infection and sepsis, a serious condition that can be fatal if not treated. While in the emergency room, Thomas began having trouble breathing.

Surgeons placed him on airway support and a feeding tube.

Over the next month and a half, Thomas’ health fluctuated. He stabilized enough to transfer to a lower level of care, but revisited intensive care unit still fighting infection and unable to liberate from the ventilator.

In January, Barbara learned of another option – Select Specialty Hospital – Cincinnati North – a critical illness recovery hospital that specializes in helping medically complex patients learn to breathe, eat, move and think independently.

Thomas’ main goals were to breath independently again and return to enjoying “country stuff” at their home in rural Ohio.

A physician-led team of therapists and nurses created a plan to help Thomas get there.

Respiratory therapists began gradually reducing his ventilator settings, watching for signs his lungs were ready to do more work. They led him through breathing and coughing exercises to strengthen his chest muscles and diaphragm.

Concurrently, physical and occupational therapists launched a mobility program – a series of small movements that can help ventilated patients wean more easily, according to research*. Twice daily, Thomas sat up in bed, at its edge or in a chair.

Nurses helped him move and turn, they administered medication and kept an eye on his vital signs.

It took about two weeks for Thomas to liberate from the ventilator, at which point he only airway support.

Speech language pathologists tested his ability to swallow safely. When he passed, the first thing Thomas wanted was a simple drink of water.

“I was so thirsty,” he said. “Drinking again felt good.”

Barbara visited every day, cheering as he took his first steps with a walker and, finally, had his airway support removed.

After little more than a month, Thomas was ready for the next step in recovery. He left, using his walker, for an inpatient rehabilitation hospital, where he would continue building stamina and strength.

He’s looking forward to returning home, volunteering at the firehouse and enjoying his hard-won independence.

*Unroe, Ann Int Med, 2010, 153, 167