'We Probably Called Over 50 places' - Florida COVID-19 Patients Are Leaving The State For ECMO
The text message she got from Glenn Gotay was hard to make out, almost like a child had written it.
Like many parents, 32-year-old Gotay was worried about his seven-year-old daughter starting school.
"It says, 'Can you please make sure that Natalie teacher likes her,'” said Shanel Garrell. Glenn and Shanel co-parent Natalie, age 7, together. “So yeah. Even on, about to get intubated, he was caring about her.”
Gotay is a father of three who works at the Osceola County Jail. He is in the intensive care unit at Osceola Regional Medical Center, where a machine has been breathing for him since July 31.
When things got really bad for Gotay, doctors talked about putting him on ECMO - extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. It’s a machine that pumps blood out of your body, oxygenates it, and pumps it back in. It acts as an artificial heart and lungs to buy patients more time.
But Shanel and her step mother Tina Kuga Garrell say they couldn’t find a center that would take him.
“So we were calling all over at different hospitals: Pensacola, Gainesville, Mayo, all of them," Tina said.
“So we probably called over 50 places,” Shanel added.
COVID-19, and especially the Delta variant, are making younger patients sicker. More of these patients are candidates for ECMO because they are young. But there aren’t enough adult ECMO beds in Florida to meet the demand.
Dr. Ulyee Choe is the director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, on Florida’s west coast. He spoke to Pinellas County Commissioners last week.
“What I also heard this morning is that we are now out of adult ECMO capacity in the Tampa Bay region," Choe said. "And what ECMO is is it’s a cardiopulmonary bypass for severely damaged lungs. And there is no capacity for this at this time.”
Christine Stead is the CEO of ELSO, an umbrella organization that tracks data on ECMO centers worldwide. According to their COVID-19 map, there are currently 379 patients on ECMO nationwide. It's an extremely specialized treatment that is not done at every hospital.
“Patients have been transported a lot of miles to get access to ECMO care," Stead said. "I think there was one recently in Florida that went up to Connecticut for care where there’s capacity right now.”
Her organization set up exchanges so ECMO centers can loan each other equipment. They are also trying to figure out why the death rate of COVID-19 patients on ECMO has recently increased to about 48 percent.
“That can be a variety of things, including patient selection," Stead said. "So that varies too, depending on where you are and what kind of resources you have. Some hospitals, once you get really busy, they have to make different kinds of decisions.”
For Glenn Gotay, he is still in the ICU with a tracheostomy. A machine is still breathing for him, but now the breathing tube goes through a hole in his neck.
Gotay was not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. His family says he got the first dose of the vaccine about a week before he got sick.
Shanel said that on the day Glenn told her he had tested positive for COVID-19, she went and got vaccinated herself.
"I mean, learning from all this - get vaccinated," Shanel said. "Also get your affairs in order. Because if you don't have insurance, if you don't have a health care proxy. You really have to get everything in order, even if you are young, because you don't know what could happen to you tomorrow.”
Glenn Gotay does not have health insurance. So the family is trying to raise money for his care on GoFundMe.