It started off like just another evening for Kennett resident Steve Burkes before things took a complete 180 when he suddenly found himself on the way to the emergency room.
After a fever quickly set on around 10 p.m. on March 2 and concern over being bit on the arm a couple times from Ricky, the Amazon green parrot they just brought home three days before, Burkes’ wife called a nurse, who told them to head to the hospital for precautionary reasons.
He was put on a respiratory, an IV and antibiotics at Jennersville Hospital, but Burkes’ blood pressure began to plummet and Dr. David Callahan made the decision to medevac him to Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.
“At the end of the day on (March) 4, Dr. Callahan couldn’t do anything more for me because the respirator was as far as it could go and they could only get 70 percent out of my lungs,” Burkes said. “That was a red flag to him.”
When his wife arrived at Jennersville, they informed him they weren’t sure he would even survive the helicopter ride.
Burkes, who lives on Candlewyck Drive in Avondale, kept fighting and once he reached Jefferson, his lungs, which when X-rayed at Jennersville were black and completely clear, had turned almost completely white.
“They immediately took X-rays in bed,” he said. “My lungs were so white and had two black spots about the size of a quarter on each lung. That’s all my capacity was.”
Burkes showed individual signs of different illnesses, but tested negative to each and every one, leaving the team of doctors working on him completely stumped as to what was wrong with him.
All they knew was Burkes was continuing to go downhill rapidly.
It even got to the point where Burkes was in the isolation wing along with two patients diagnosed with N1H1 Swine Flu and even had to contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They called (his wife) in and said, ‘Look, we have no idea what it is. We have tested him as much as we can and we’re going to continue to test him, but we want to do something that we basically haven’t tried before,’” Burkes said.
His team of doctors, which by Burkes’ last count was 12, decided to try putting him on an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which takes the blood out of his body, cleans it and returns the blood back into his system. Usually, this is performed on patients with heart problems and adolescents.
This was given doctors extra concern for Burkes, who is 59. They also wanted to put him on a respirator at the same time and have him in a special bed, which would cradle him for three hours before a brief rest, flip his body and cradle him again.
“(My wife) is a lawyer,” Burkes said. “This is the first time she made an emotional decision not on the facts. She said, ‘Whatever it takes to save him, let’s do it.’ They told my wife if the rest of my body organs weren’t at 100 percent, I didn’t have a chance.”
At this point in time, doctors gave him only a 50 percent chance of pulling through.
Doctors believed putting him on the ECMO would last for weeks and take months of rehab - if he pulled through - and because of everything they were putting him through, it would send him into a year or two of depression.
Burkes’ condition continued to dumbfound doctors and all they knew was whatever virus he had, turned to pneumonia and then to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
“There have only been 15 documented cases worldwide of a patient going from a common, airborne – I wouldn’t call it a disease,” Burkes said. “It’s something you touch and breathe it in every day. Going from that to pneumonia to ARDS. Out of the 15 cases, 90 percent didn’t make it. I’m the only documented adult that has been through this process.”
Like he said, Burkes was able to pull through – and in miraculous time which, once again, left doctors stunned.
He was put on the ECMO machine on March 4 and seven days later, he was off the system. On March 18, he was medically released.
“That blew all of their minds,” Burkes said. “My other organs just all came together.”
Burkes was expected to be in rehab for weeks and move with a walker.
He didn’t need a walker – not even one time. He ended having roughly an hour of PT before being cleared. He left the hospital with no side effects and no depression. He only came home with a blood thinner and two scars on his neck from the ECMO and a tracheotomy.
“That’s what is amazing,” Burkes said. “It’s almost like nothing happened.”
Burkes decided to throw a surprise 50th birthday party for his wife and a thank you to the doctors who saved his life and invited them all, which they attended.
Everything, from the unknown virus to the unique systems put together to his speedy recovery, has his doctors now teaching on it for use in the future.
They took the system used on Burkes and applied it to the two patients with N1H1 kept in the same floor as him and both have now been released from the hospital.
“They saw an immediate improvement in me and transferred it over to the (N1H1 patients),” Burkes said. “I feel good about that. I helped someone without even knowing. It makes me feel good knowing that. I hope someone else benefits from this.”
It’s a scary thought that, even now, no one is sure what caused the sudden onset of the illness, but Burkes doesn’t plan to let it change his lifestyle. He is just thankful that everything which happened that day came at just the right time to help save his life.
“Things happen for a reason and each step took a reason,” Burkes said. “It started with Ricky. I’m not a truly religious person, but there was a higher power that was looking over me then. Had it not been for the parrot, I would not have gone to the hospital. (The doctor) said if I had not gone to the emergency room, I would not have made it another eight hours. I’m hoping something good comes out of it.”