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M Health Fairview experts turn to ECMO treatment to save 38-year-old father and triathlete from COVID-19

Ben O’Donnell was a healthy Ironman triathlete until COVID-19 ravaged his lungs. To save his life, doctors put him on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a heart-and-lung bypass device.
Diagnosed with, Ben O’Donnell was hospitalized for 28 days and placed on ECMO. “He and his family will be a story that sticks with me for life,” one of his nurses said.

Weeks ago, Ben O’Donnell was running three to five miles several times a week to prepare for his second Ironman competition. Now, he measures his milestones in trips up the stairs and down the driveway.

It’s a startling turn of events for O’Donnell, who was hospitalized for 28 days in March and April at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center with a severe case of COVID-19. To save his life, doctors put O’Donnell on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a device that temporarily took over the work of his lungs.

O’Donnell was the third confirmed COVID-19 case in Minnesota, and the first severe one. So far, the elderly and those with pre-existing health complications seem to be at highest risk. But O’Donnell’s case defied global trends. He is 38 years old and was in good health before the disease struck.

The severity of his illness surprised state health officials and his own medical team.

“It made everything a lot more real,” said Haley Kramer, RN, an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse who cared for O’Donnell. “He was me. He was my husband and a lot of my close friends and family. It put into perspective that nobody was safe with this virus.”

Uncharted Territory

O’Donnell first noticed something was wrong after a business trip to Denver and Houston the last week of February. He returned home February 29 with a 102-degree fever that persisted for several days. On March 3, O’Donnell visited a hospital, where he was tested for influenza. The test came back negative.

Though O’Donnell suspected he had COVID-19, he had not been in contact with another confirmed COVID-19 case – a pre-requisite for testing at the time. So he returned to his Anoka County home and self-isolated in his basement. His wife, Deanna, was away on a trip, and the family sent their 3-year-old daughter to stay with relatives.

On March 8, with the fever still roiling, O’Donnell went to the emergency room at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center. He was given a chest X-ray and admitted to the ICU. Within hours, doctors put him on a ventilator, but his lungs were full of fluid and his blood oxygen levels kept falling and falling. O’Donnell’s family and care team decided ECMO would be his best chance for survival.

“We are in uncharted territory with this disease,” O’Donnell said. “It helped me out that they were willing to take the chances.”

“A story that sticks with me for life”

Though he was one of the first COVID-19 cases in the nation to receive extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), O’Donnell was in the best of hands. Experts at the medical center have decades of experience using ECMO.

“The University of Minnesota and M Health Fairview have been involved in the development of extracorporeal oxygenation since the 1940s,” said Critical Care Surgeon Melissa Brunsvold, MD, FACS. “We are the busiest ECMO center in the state, with more than 200 cases a year.”

“There’s such a small number of hospitals in the United States that even have ECMO and the expertise to do it properly,” Deanna O’Donnell said. “We happened to go to the right hospital to get him the care he needed.”

The device re-oxygenated O’Donnell’s blood, but he remained unconscious for a week. During that time, O’Donnell’s body responded to the disease with an immune system overreaction that could only be stopped with immunosuppressant drugs. When he came to on March 17, he faced other challenges. O’Donnell needed antibiotics for bacteria in his lungs, and required dialysis when his kidneys and liver temporarily failed.

His also team tried administering hydroxochloroquine, an anti-malarial drug being tested for use against COVID-19.

Amidst it all, O’Donnell kept his spirits up by video conferencing with friends and family. For most of his stay, COVID-19 restrictions prevented his family from visiting. During his virtual chats, O’Donnell would sign messages to his loved ones. He couldn’t speak because of the tube in his throat.

By late March, O’Donnell’s condition had improved enough for him to begin physical therapy. On March 22, later, doctors safely removed him from ECMO. Though O’Donnell benefited from the procedure, ECMO comes with its own set of risks, and not everyone is a good candidate for it, Melissa Brunsvold said.

Dozens of doctors, nurses and other workers were deeply involved in his care, including Hayley Kramer, Brunsvold, Infectious Disease Physician Meghan Rothenberger, MD, Surgeon Jeffrey Chipman, MD, Surgical Intensivist Salma Shaker, MD, Infectious Disease Physician Josh Rhein, MD, and others.

“It seemed all of the Fairview medical system was focused on how to keep me alive,” O’Donnell said.

On April 6, O’Donnell was finally well enough to return home to his wife and daughter. But his near-death experience permanently altered his perspective and drove him to share his story in order to warn others.

“You never know what’s going to happen. I went from training for an Ironman and being on a business trip to being flat on my back needing ECMO within a week. I was looking at my career, my family, my trajectory, looking at what I’ve done. I asked myself ‘If it were to end, would I be OK with that?’”

O’Donnell’s journey has made a lasting impact on his caregivers, too.

“Ben is a poster child for why we do what we do,” Haley Kramer said. “He and his family will be a story that sticks with me for life.”