Heart Attack Survivor Thanks Team That Saved Him
During 75-day Hospitalization, a Former ‘Miracle Patient’ Gave Motivation
to Help Man Pull Through
September 15, 2022 - A South Jersey man who was critically ill for 2½ months after a massive heart attack and a rare complication returned to Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital on Aug. 30 to thank the staff who saved his life.
Patient Erik Leach also thanked another “miracle patient” from the hospital – COVID survivor Frank Talarico Jr. – who generously met with Erik during his hospitalization, and gave the gravely ill man the inspiration he needed for recovery.
Frank had spent 49 days fighting for his life at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes during the omicron wave of the pandemic. He was making his own thank-you visit in March when he learned Erik, a stranger, had requested a meeting in his nearby hospital room.
The visit offered living proof that Erik – then on life support – could survive his ordeal.
“It was a daily battle. I couldn’t really move or talk,” says the 44-year-old Hainesport resident. “But here was this guy walking in who had gotten through all of that. He was wearing his leather jacket, looking like he just got off his motorcycle.
“It was really important for me to see that. It made me think I can do that, too,” notes Erik, who had a rare treatment side-effect that greatly reduced his chances of living.
“Erik’s survival is miraculous,” says Jackie Patterson, a Virtua advanced nurse clinician.
Their encounter meant a lot to Frank, too.
“Erik asked me, ‘Am I going to get better and stronger?’” recalls the Pennsauken man. “I said, ‘Look at me. I was like you, lying there in a hospital bed, all these machines hooked up to me. And now here I am, walking around on my own. You will get better; it’s just going to take time.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be someone’s motivation to get better,” adds Frank, now 48. “That was really nice to hear, that I had an effect on somebody like that.”
Severe Heart Attack
Erik’s ordeal started on New Year’s Eve 2021. The security supervisor and military veteran developed severe chest pains and shortness of breath while he and his fiancée, Laura DiLeo, were at home watching a movie.
Laura called 911, and an ambulance rushed Erik to Virtua Mount Holly Hospital at 9 p.m. Upon arrival, Erik’s heart stopped, and the team shocked his heart to restart it.
Doctors found a complete blockage in a large artery – known as a “widowmaker” because such heart attacks are especially deadly.
The team unblocked the artery via a catheter – an advanced, minimally invasive procedure – and placed a stent in the vessel to keep it open. This quick action was essential to prevent severe damage to Erik’s heart.
Erik was unable to breathe sufficiently on his own, so the staff put him on a ventilator. Still, his body was struggling and he needed more complex support. The Virtua Mount Holly team stabilized him, and at midnight – as 2022 rolled in – transferred him to Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, which offers highly advanced cardiac care.
There, Erik received several other treatments, but his body still wasn’t getting enough oxygen to function properly. His heart and lungs needed to rest, so the team put him on ECMO – an intensive life-support machine that is only available at certain high-level facilities.
Despite these extensive measures, Erik’s life continued to hang in the balance.
He developed a severe complication – bleeding in his airways – which prevented oxygen from reaching his lungs, says Dr. Qiong “John” Yang, Erik’s critical care physician.
So Dr. Yang had to turn off the ventilator and clamp the breathing tube to try to stop the bleeding. At the same time, he let the ECMO deliver all of Erik’s oxygen directly to his blood stream, bypassing the lungs.
“This was a very unusual challenge,” explains Dr. Yang. “Normally the patient is on both ECMO and the ventilator. But that wasn’t possible in Erik’s case, since we had to clamp the breathing tube to stop the bleeding first.”
The team also decided to leave the ventilator tube in Erik’s throat, in order to clear his airways if needed in the future. (Erik couldn’t feel the tube in his throat because he was sedated.) And once his airways were clear, Erik would need the ventilator again, notes Dr. Yang.
Over the next week, Erik’s lungs repeatedly clogged with blood and secretions, requiring his medical team to clear his airways 14 times – a number that is virtually unheard-of. “Most patients only need this done once or twice,” states Dr. Yang.
The delicate procedure, called bronchoscopy, uses a camera-tipped tube that travels down the throat and into the lungs. It enables doctors to see and remove blood clots and secretions that obstruct the airways.
During this time, Erik’s kidneys began to fail, requiring him to be put on dialysis. He developed pneumonia, which the team treated with IV antibiotics (given directly into a vein).
Erik’s continued need for ECMO was also worrisome. “The longer a person needs ECMO, the less likely it is that they will survive,” nurse Patterson explains.
“He was so sick, the staff wasn’t optimistic he’d pull out of it, but we treated him aggressively, regardless.”
High-Tech with a Human Touch
After 29 days on ECMO, Erik was finally well enough to come off the life-saving device and go back on the less-invasive ventilator.
“When he woke up and was following commands, it was amazing. He fought so hard,” recalls Patterson, her voice catching with emotion.
“I don’t think I’d be here if it weren’t for these folks,” says Erik, who credits the staff’s expertise, advanced technology, and around-the-clock support for his survival.
The Virtua team also helped Erik – like Frank before him – cope emotionally with a long hospitalization, especially when COVID-19 lockdowns prohibited any visitors for many weeks.
“The staff would come by and give me a hug, cheer me on, talk to me. It meant a lot,” recalls Erik, who was unable to move while on life-support.
His loved ones also played a key role, and the staff supported them, too. “Erik’s fiancée and sisters were wonderful advocates for him and always lifted his spirits,” says nurse Sue Parkinson, who continues to stay in touch with Erik and Laura.
“That emotional support is so important for patients and families,” says Correinne McKenna Newman, nursing director of the hospital’s coronary care unit. “We do everything we can to keep people motivated to get better.”
Just four days after meeting Frank, on March 15, Erik was healthy enough to leave the hospital. He spent the next two weeks receiving inpatient rehabilitation at a specialized facility within Virtua Willingboro Hospital, and then three weeks at another rehab center.
He returned home in mid-April, and now receives outpatient cardiac rehabilitation three times a week at the Virtua Health & Wellness Center – Moorestown.
One Miracle Patient to Another
When Frank returned to Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes in March to thank the staff for saving his life, he didn’t expect to connect with a patient. But the nurses thought a meeting would be good medicine.
“Frank was proof that I could do it,” says Erik, who feared he’d never be able to breathe on his own or walk again. “It’s one thing to be told you can do it, but another to see it walking around and talking. After Frank’s visit, I was more hell-bent on getting my legs underneath me and getting up and out of there.”
The visit was inspiring for Frank, too, and a reminder of how far he’s come in his own recovery.
“Both of us were on ECMO and ventilators,” says the husband and father, who survived a huge blood clot in his lung caused by COVID-19. “It wasn’t that long before [the visit] that I was lying in a bed like he was.”
Frank, who retired as a Merchantville police sergeant in June after 25 years of service, has resumed his normal activities: working as a handyman, exercising daily at his local gym, and travelling with his wife.
The only lingering sign of his health ordeal is that his lungs are not yet functioning at their full capacity. But they have reached 80% to 90% and continue to improve, Frank says.
“I still keep in touch with some of my doctors and nurses,” he adds. “These people touched my life in such a way that they’ll never, ever be forgotten. They mean so much to me. I still call them my angels.”
Erik, too, is well on his way to recovery. He returned to work earlier this month, is able to drive, and does a lot of walking. “I’m approaching normalcy,” he says.
“It’s not too often in life that you encounter people you don’t know who are willing to go to great lengths for you,” says Erik of the Virtua staff. “They took care of me, they gave me hope, they kept me on course.”