WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) – Access to a life support measure used to treat COVID-19 and heart transplant patients alike is “limited” across the state of Florida, according to a representative from a major Tampa Bay health care system.
“The only thing that’s going to improve him is this machine. So it’s like – find it,” said Kassandra Figueroa, of Auburndale.
Her husband, Sergio Figueroa, 32, tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of August.
Initially, it seemed like the father of three was going to recover well.
Then weeks later, his oxygen levels were low and he was acting delirious, Figueroa said.
So she brought him to Winter Haven Hospital.
“He called me and you know, he sounded scared. He was like, they’re going to intubate me. And I was like, what?'” she said through tears.
Sergio Figueroa did not get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’ve gotten the vaccine. We were just scared for him to get it. He has asthma and he has high blood pressure,” she said.
Experts advise people with those conditions to get vaccinated.
“Asthma and high blood pressure are not contraindications or concerns with getting the COVID-19 vaccine; however, they are risk factors for worsening COVID-19 outcomes, and I would strongly recommend vaccinating any patients with high-risk conditions,” said Dr. Hal Escowitz, Chief Medical Informatics Officer at Lakeland Regional Health.
After spending weeks on a ventilator, Figueroa said his doctors told her he needed to be put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine.
The machine pumps blood outside the body, removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygenated blood back into the body which allows the heart and lungs to rest and heal.
Winter Haven Hospital does not have an ECMO machine.
“It’s just scary. He’s young. He’s 32 and then it’s more scary the fact that they don’t even have it at that hospital,” said Figueroa.
Winter Haven Hospital is part of the Bay Care Health System.
A representative tells News Channel 8 all seven of the health system’s ECMO beds are at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.
Availability of the service has “sometimes been limited” in Florida, she said.
“ECMO availability changes frequently based on patient acuity and hospital resources including staffing, both of which have been impacted by the recent surge in critical COVID-19 patients. Each admission is based on a collaboration amongst providers determining appropriate patient selection for this specific treatment option,” wrote Lisa Razler, System Public Relations Manager in a statement.
Lakeland Regional Health does not currently have access to an ECMO machine, according to a spokesperson.
During an 8 On Your Side visit to Tampa General Hospital, a nurse told a reporter some COVID-19 patients are on ECMO machines.
“Even our most stable ECMO patient is considered unstable,” said Paige Pepaj, a nurse. “So, people think someone on a ventilator is on life support, no. ECMO is the ultimate life support and these patients absolutely would not survive without it.”
Meanwhile, Figueroa said hopes for news that her husband will gain access to an ECMO machine before it’s too late.
“He’s amazing. He doesn’t deserve any of this that’s going on. He really doesn’t,” she said. “Every morning [our daughter] wakes up and she doesn’t see him there, like, it’s a rough morning for her. She just wakes up upset.”