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Local Police Officer's Ordeal with After Effects of COVID-19

May 02, 2022 - Thanks to the quick actions of health care heroes at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, a Merchantville police sergeant with a massive blood clot in his lung caused by COVID-19 is recuperating.

May 02, 2022

Virtua Health Team Saves Officer’s Life Against All Odds; Giant Blood Clot – Over 12 Inches Long – Was in His Lung

They call him their “miracle patient.” He calls them his “miracle workers.”

“He” is Frank Talarico Jr., a Merchantville police sergeant who nearly died from a massive blood clot in his lung caused by COVID-19.

“They” are a team of health care heroes at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, who used a combination of swift action, advanced techniques, and caring support to save the 47-year-old husband and father.

The clot, known medically as a pulmonary embolism, was more than a foot long and as thick as a finger in many areas – one of the largest the staff had seen.

“It almost took me out,” says Frank, a 25-year public servant who was just six months away from retirement when he fell ill.

Indeed, as doctors worked to remove the life-threatening mass, Frank’s heart nearly stopped and he had to be put on life support. His kidneys also were at risk of failure, so doctors immediately put him on dialysis to do the work of those vital organs.

The Virtua team was “just amazing, because I’m still here,” adds Frank. “They’re truly angels, all of them.”

Frank’s health care providers agree that his chances of survival were slim. But their efforts – along with his family’s strong support and Frank’s own perseverance – pulled him through the crisis.

“Because of the care he received at the hospital and the good care he received at home from his wife, Frank recovered,” notes Dr. Hitoshi (Gene) Hirose, director of cardiac critical care for Virtua and a key member of Frank’s care team.

“He’s a remarkable person. He went through so much,” adds Shawn McCullough, one of Frank’s critical care nurses.

McCullough is among many staff who would constantly check on Frank – even when they weren’t assigned to care for him. One such night, when Frank struggled to communicate with McCullough, the quick-thinking nurse drew an alphabet chart, enabling Frank to express himself by pointing to the letters. The team used the chart for several days.

“Nurses are at the bedside 24/7, giving that continuous care,” says Jackie Whitby, another of Frank’s critical care nurses. “Even after visiting hours, we’re reassuring the families and giving them that snapshot of how their loved one is doing.”

One-two punch

Frank’s experience is a sobering example of the dangers of COVID-19 – especially for the unvaccinated, like this previously healthy and athletic officer. He was hospitalized twice, and almost died the second time.

The Pennsauken man first became ill in December, when he developed a severe case of COVID. He was admitted to Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes on Christmas Eve, and spent 26 days there being treated for COVID pneumonia. After returning home, he had to continue using an oxygen tank.

His health had been improving until one morning in late January, when he awoke early with severe breathlessness. Frank’s wife – a physician assistant who works part-time in the Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes emergency department – immediately suspected a pulmonary embolism. She called an ambulance, which sped them to the hospital.

Once they arrived, the hospital’s rapid response team launched into action. Specialists performed a thrombectomy to remove the dangerous clot through a catheter (a thin, flexible tube). If not removed quickly, these clots can fatally block blood flow in the lungs.

At the same time, with Frank’s heart rate and other vital signs falling, other doctors placed Frank on ECMO – an advanced life-support machine that serves as the patient’s heart and lungs. With his kidneys also failing, another specialist put him on dialysis.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” says Frank. “COVID and the blood clot caused my body to go into so much distress. They were very concerned I wasn’t going to make it.”

Frank almost went into cardiac arrest as the team worked to save him, notes Dr. Hirose.

“His blood pressure was so low, we had to use medications to keep his heart beating. We had a small margin of time to complete the thrombectomy and save Frank,” recalls the physician, who started the hospital’s ECMO program when he joined Virtua last year. (ECMO is only available at certain advanced facilities.)

Dr. John Schwika, Frank’s nephrologist (kidney doctor), remembers thinking Frank was so sick that he was unlikely to survive, despite the highly intensive care he was getting. “It’s incredible that he came through this,” says the doctor, who is chief of nephrology for Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes.

Being able to diagnose and remove the clot swiftly was critical, he explains. “A lot of times, people ignore their symptoms and come in when it’s too late. If a PE (pulmonary embolism) is not treated, they’re deadly.”

Dr. Schwika credits the entire care team for Frank’s recovery, including the critical care nurses. “They know how to assess patients and tell us what’s going on. Then they follow up on it. It’s all of us working together.”

‘Mind changed’ on COVID vaccines

Frank’s experience has altered his view about vaccination.

“I had reservations about the vaccine, but after this whole ordeal, my mind is completely changed,” says Frank, who plans to get vaccinated as soon as doctors clear him to do so.

“The vaccine helps prevent hospitalization and death,” emphasizes nurse Whitby. “I’m very happy to hear that Frank now supports the vaccine.”

COVID is “not to be taken lightly,” Frank stresses. “It’s definitely real. The nurses told me so many people with COVID didn’t walk out of the hospital after going there.”

He also agrees with the medical consensus that the virus isn’t going away any time soon. “So take care of yourself and trust in the people who take care you,” he advises.

Thanking the staff

Three weeks after being discharged from the hospital, Frank and his wife Christine Lynch returned to Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes to express their gratitude to those who saved and cared for him.

“It was emotional. They were all so good to me,” says Frank, who brought bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and then returned with pizzas for the night crew.

“People don’t realize how much of their heart and soul they put into their patients,” says Frank. “A lot of them were emotional seeing me walk in unassisted, knowing how sick I had been. Tears were shed all around.”

As a health care worker herself, Christine knows the extreme amount of loss the staff has seen since the start of the pandemic. “It can really break them down emotionally,” she says. “I knew how much it would mean to them to see how well Frank’s doing, to see our gratitude, and to help them in any small way we could.”

Looking ahead

Frank continues to recover at home, and can now do many of his former activities, including driving, cooking, and starting to exercise again at his gym.

Virtua provides him with physical therapy at home three times a week, and he recently started pulmonary rehabilitation at a Virtua Rehab site twice weekly. He still has shortness of breath when he exerts himself, but his therapists say that will lessen, and he no longer needs supplemental oxygen. He’ll be on blood thinners for up to a year, to help prevent more clots.

Frank’s retirement from the police is still set for June 30 – when he will reach his full 25 years of service. In the meantime, he’s using his accumulated vacation, personal, and sick time as he rebuilds his health.

He and Christine have delayed a planned relocation to Florida, originally set for July. Now, they’re looking to move in January, allowing more time for Frank to rebuild his health and attend multiple medical appointments in New Jersey over the coming months.

And though they married last June in Mexico, the pair haven’t taken a honeymoon yet, so they’re hoping to do so once Frank feels better.

Still, he and his family know that none of this would even be possible without the multi-faceted, life-saving care Frank received.

“I’ve always had a great appreciation for health care workers,” says Frank, “but the way they took care of me and how much they did, gave me an even stronger appreciation for them.”