Robert (Bob) Webster of Lafayette, Minn., doesn’t remember the helicopter ride from Allina Health’s New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC) to Allina’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital (ANW) in Minneapolis, about 90 miles away. In fact, he really doesn’t remember anything at all about what happened over that weekend in late February of 2018.
However, when Bob regained consciousness a couple days later, he learned some startling news: He’d been very close to death, and doctors at ANW had saved his life using an investigational procedure being studied in partnership with doctors at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation® (MHIF) to treat acute exacerbations of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
“My wife had to sign some papers that I probably wasn’t going to make it through, and a couple times during the procedure somebody told her that I probably wouldn’t make it then, either,” said Bob. “But I fooled them all and woke up!”
Bob, who has had COPD for about seven years, had returned home after getting a haircut one Friday and told his wife Donna he didn’t feel well. He felt light-headed and was struggling to breathe, so they headed to the Emergency Room at NUMC, where he began treatment for an acute exacerbation of COPD.
COPD is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. It affects 30 million Americans and is the third leading cause of death in the United States behind cancer and heart disease. Sudden worsening of COPD is quite serious, often leading to hospitalization and even death. During such events, dangerous levels of carbon dioxide can build up in the blood because a patient’s damaged lungs do not effectively eliminate carbon dioxide from the body.
In Bob’s case, the level of carbon dioxide in his blood was more than twice the level that doctors wanted to see. He was sedated and placed on a mechanical ventilator. When this treatment did not work for his particularly severe episode, Bob was transferred to ANW and became the first patient enrolled in MHIF’s VENT-AVOID Trial led by Dr. Ramiro Saavedra-Romero. The study is examining extracorporeal carbon dioxide removal as a new and safe treatment modality when traditional methods of ventilatory support fail or are deemed undesirable.
Donna said that doctors explained to her that the procedure at ANW was really the only option available to try and save Bob’s life.
“He was really, really, really sick,” she said. “So we decided we should try something. It was our best avenue, and of course, we’re glad we did it.”
Coming from a small town in Minnesota, Bob was surprised to learn that he was the first person in the entire United States to receive the procedure, but said, “I guess wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had this procedure, so I’m thankful for that. It all worked out.”
He added, “I felt good when I woke up.” And asked if he felt a little bit better than when he had gone in that fateful Friday, he laughed and exclaimed, “Amen!”