Restoring a beloved sister to the family that needs her
Carolyn Willis was scared. She was short of breath and coughing up blood. Fever and chills wracked her body. The day before Thanksgiving, a family member drove her to the emergency room.
She was already dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, an ongoing inflammation in her lungs that makes breathing difficult. Now, the disease flared. Coupled with pneumonia in her left, kidney failure and a bloodstream infection, Carolyn was gravely ill.
The 62-year-old was placed on breathing and feeding tubes, as well as multiple intravenous antibiotics. For a month, she fought for her life. As Christmas approached, however, Carolyn turned the corner and her son, Regis, and sister, Carla, could consider the next steps in care.
They chose Select Specialty Hospital – Memphis given its experience in caring for medically complex patients.
Carolyn’s biggest goals were to breathe, walk and move independently. A physician-led team of nurses, therapists, pharmacists and dietitians created a plan to help her return home.
Respiratory therapists began testing Carolyn’s readiness to liberate from the ventilator, an essential milestone since no facility in Tennessee was capable of taking a ventilator/dialysis patient. She would have to move at least one state away for treatment. Not ideal since Carolyn was the caretaker for her sister and her son relied on her, too.
Therapists slowly dropped the machine’s settings, allowing Carolyn’s lungs to do more work. She was nervous, but her family and therapy team stayed by her side, holding her hand as she breathed through each adjustment.
On Christmas Day, the family got a gift - Carolyn was breathing on her own, no longer on the machine.
She still required airway support, so respiratory therapists used exercises to encourage deep breathing, including a device that moved a small ball higher with each successful exhale.
Physical and occupational therapists began a mobility program on day one. They moved Carolyn’s arms and legs to get her blood flowing. As she grew stronger, they added sitting up, rolling over and moving into a chair.
Once off the ventilator, therapists concentrated on arm and leg exercises with Carolyn, building stamina, which allowed her to stand, pivot and take a few steps.
Dietitians and speech therapists coordinated care preparing meals of the proper consistency to ensure Carolyn could swallow safely. Carolyn was pleased to have lost 50 pounds by sticking to the dietitian’s plan.
Throughout her stay, pharmacists continually assessed her medication and pain levels, adjusting medication for optimal doses.
By February, Carolyn progressed enough to move to the next stage of recovery. She was halfway to meeting all her goals, she said. She hoped to become more independent and require little to no assistance with the next few months. Rather than move out of state, she left for a nearby inpatient rehabilitation hospital for a short stay before heading home.
Her illness helped Carolyn commit to quitting smoking, continuing her diet plan and gaining strength through exercise.