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Your Healthy Family: Collier man has severe lung damage, likely from his job

Posted at 7:55 AM, Aug 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-18 09:32:06-04

NAPLES, Fla. — A Collier County man's family said he ended up in a coma on an artificial lung because of severe damage to his lungs from years in construction and demolition work.

There was a time doctors at NCH Healthcare System didn't think Rudy Figueroa, 50, would make it.

"They told me that he was on the border line to die," Liliana, Rudy's wife, said.

Figueroa, a father of two, was sick for two months at home.

"He was short of breath and all that, so we went to a doctor. They took an x-ray, they said that it was pneumonia," Liliana said. "We had the appointment to see the Pulmonologist on May 13, and two days before that, Rudy got home from work with his lips and his tongue purple."

Liliana said she rushed him to NCH Healthcare System.

"He needed to be intubated and required a ventilator for support,” Dr. Ricardo Martinez Ruiz, a Cardiac Intensivist with the NCH Heart Institute, said.

“He was prone. We flip the patients to try to improve the work of the lungs, and that was just not enough," Dr. Gaston Cudemus, the Medical Director of NCH's ECMO Program, said.

Figueroa's team of doctors told Liliana, he needed ECMO — Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation — also known as an artificial lung. It would oxygenate his blood for him so his lungs could rest and recover.

“I was crying like crazy," Liliana said. "They told me that I have ten minutes to make a decision because they have to transfer him right away, because all the rest of his body can fail. So I said OK, let's do it."

Figueroa was on an artificial lung for 42 days, and for most of that time he was in a coma.

"And I just came see him, standing beside the bed, talking to him," Liliana said.

Figueroa's doctors asked Liliana about his line of work. He works in construction and demolition.

"There's a week prior to his admission, he was exposed to new chemicals at the job," Dr. Martinez Ruiz said.

“Something that they put on the floors, new chemicals," Liliana said.

“All these workers that work in construction and demolition really are exposed to different chemicals and materials. That affects not only the lungs, but also other organs. So over the years, he probably has been dealing with this and it finally got to him,” Dr. Cudemus said.

"He had been doing this for 16 years, so who knows what is on all the ceilings, on the walls,” Liliana said.

Fox 4 interviewed Figueroa and Liliana the day after he was moved from the ICU into a regular patient room.

"Incredible 24 hours," Figueroa said in Spanish.

He said he's grateful he's survived, and that when he took a job in construction and demolition, he never thought this could happen to him. He wants his story to be a reminder to others in his field to protect their health.

“They have to use a respirator. There are guidelines for what kind of masks and respirators they are supposed to use. You have to wear them," Dr. Martinez Ruiz said.

“Obviously, if he goes back to work, he really needs to protect his lungs very well," Dr. Cudemus said.

Dr. Cudemus said when Figueroa came in, his lungs were in horrible shape.

“The lungs are like a balloon. They go up and down {in size}. We take a deep breath, get air and oxygen in, and when we breathe out, we remove CO2. His lungs were a rock. It was truly difficult to move any air," he said.

He said without ECMO, Figueroa would not be here today.

"They told me that if that did not help him, he's going to need a lung transplant," Liliana said.

Dr. Martinez Ruiz said an artificial lung mimics how lungs normally work.

“There's an artificial membrane that is part of this setup that basically provides oxygen to the patient and gets rid of CO2," he said. "Because we're providing the gas exchange with a membrane, then we can let the lungs truly, truly rest.”

The first priority was getting Figueroa's lungs to heal.

"As they start to get better, we need to start providing adequate nutrition. We need to try to wake them up,” Dr. Martinez Ruiz said.

Then they could get Figueroa up and moving.

"We went from in a coma state on the machine, to changing the configuration of the cannulas to a point where he was able to walk with ECMO, which is very good. That allows us to exercise him so he can start gaining his strength,” Dr. Martinez Ruiz said. "It's just a pleasure to see him walk around with his wife on his side, going through the garden here and enjoying life again.”

As for what's next, Dr. Martinez Ruiz said Figueroa is still in the recovery phase.

“We have to see how good those lungs end up being, and we'll take it from there. So he definitely going to need extensive rehab just to get better," he said.

"We still see some sort of inflammation on his lungs. So we hope with time the inflammation continue to improve,” Dr. Cudemus said.

Liliana said she's just glad to see her husband smiling again.

“Oh, that was the best thing that I can see again. And I'm so happy, so happy, so happy, and so grateful.

Since Fox 4 interviewed Figueroa, he's been released from the hospital and is continuing his recovery from home.

Dr. Cudemus said NCH is the only hospital system in Southwest Florida able to offer this Mechanical Circulatory Support.