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Your Healthy Family: Naples woman shares journey as COVID-19 'long hauler'

Posted at 9:17 AM, May 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-11 12:32:16-04

NAPLES, Fla. — Since the pandemic started in 2020, doctors have gotten a better handle on how to treat patients with severe COVID-19. Angela Pena came down with the virus on her 29th birthday. She had no underlying health conditions, but ended up in a medically-induced coma at NCH Downtown Baker Hospital with an artificial lung oxygenating her blood.

"I still get emotional when I think about everything. When memories start coming back about just being in the bed, looking at four walls," Pena said.

The four walls she's remembering, are the room in the Cardiovascular ICU at NCH. She was on a ventilator, then an ECMO machine, which had to oxygenate her blood because her lungs just couldn't do it.

Pena came down with COVID-19 in August of 2021, when the Delta variant was sweeping through our country.

"One of my co workers, she tested positive," she said.

She had plans to get vaccinated that week, but on her 29th Birthday she started having body aches.

"I just started feeling worse. I want to say I was home for at least six or seven days with body aches and fevers," she said.

Then came the shortness of breath.

"I used to check my oxygen, and it started going down to like 89," Pena said.

For reference, a normal blood oxygen level is 95 percent or higher. Between 91 and 94 is concerning. Below 90 percent is critical.

Pena said she knew she was in trouble, so she called her fiance, David.

"And I'm like, 'I need to go to hospital,'" she said.

He took her to NCH.

"He dropped me off, and from there I don't remember nothing," Pena said.

"What's the next thing you remember?" Fox 4 Morning News Anchor Lisa Greenberg asked her.

"I just remember seeing a bunch of doctors scramble over," she said.

That next memory was two months after she first arrived at the hospital.

"I was in shock when they told me it was October. And I was like 'But just few days ago was my birthday? It was August.'" she said.

What she didn't know is that two months had gone by. For two months, Pena was in a medically-induced coma.

"We ended up having to put her on ECMO because her lungs were so damaged and raging with the COVID infection," Michelle Mosher, an ICU Nurse at NCH Downtown Baker Hospital, said.

"When her lungs were resting, when they were healing, my machine was actually being her lungs," Chandra Gall, the Clinical Coordinator for Perfusion at NCH, said. "So we took the blood out of her venous side, oxygenated it, and then put it back in so her heart could pump out to the rest of her body."

ECMO stands for or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. It's also referred to as an artificial lung.

"She has two little babies at home, and I know that she was just fighting to get well just to go home to them," Gall said.

The other heartbreaking part of this story: when Pena came down with COVID-19 in August 2021, she was 14 weeks pregnant.

"Unfortunately, she did end up losing the baby," Mosher said.

"It was very painful, because it was going to be our last baby that we were going to have. And it was a decision that we had made that that was going to be it," Pena said.

She said that baby went on to be her guardian angel.

Her seven-year-old, Samuel, and two-year-old, David, were home with her fiance waiting and praying.

"I knew I needed to be strong," Pena said.

She was strong enough to have the artificial lung removed in October. She was strong enough to see her son again during an ICU visit. She was strong enough to leave NCH for good. And she was strong enough to go home to her family just in time for Thanksgiving. But COVID-19 wasn't done with Pena yet; months after her initial diagnosis, she still deals with the impacts of the virus every day.

Pena is what's called a 'COVID-19 Long-Hauler.'

Days after we first interviewed her, she shaved her head because it was thinning so much.

"It's just bothering me," she said in a video she recorded of herself before she shaved her head. "People look at me weird when I go outside. So I decided OK, if people are going to look at me, they might as well look at me bald-headed."

Hair loss isn't the only long-term impact she's had to deal with, since she got the virus 9 months ago. Aside from having to learn to sit up, walk again, and get around, Pena has scars on her neck.

"I guess that's from where the ECMO was connected," Pena said.

Her voice is quiet and scratchy, she gets fatigued more easily, and becomes short of breath. But her most critical health issue because of her COVID-19 diagnosis is her heart rate.

"My heart rate stays up," she said.

She has to wear a heart monitor and make sure her heart rate doesn't get too high.

There are a lot of people in Pena's shoes, still dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 months or years after coming down with the virus. The American Medical Association says 10-30 percent of patients might experience long COVID after recovering, even if they weren't very sick to begin with. It also says women are impacted more than men.

For Pena, things have started to look up a bit.

"I am able to come to the park with my kids and enjoy this moment. I thought I was not going to be able to do it," she said. "I can play with them, run around. Well, not as much, but I'm able to run a little bit."

She said she can now get up off the floor, cook and clean every day, and even does some yoga.

"It is a little hard sometimes, just because there's times that my heart rate goes up, and I have to stop for a few moments. Then I'm able to continue doing things I was doing," Pena said.

She said doctors are optimistic she'll make a full recovery.

Gall said Pena was on ECMO for at least a thousand hours.

The ECMO oxygenated Pena’s blood for her using two tubes.

“We put one in her groin and one in her neck,” Gall said. “It would get rid of her CO2, add oxygen, and then we would pump the blood back into her venous side. And then her heart would pump it to the rest of her body.”

Pena’s doctor said when she got COVID-19 during the Delta variant surge, they had to learn fast.

“We didn’t really have a choice,” Dr. Stephen D’Orazio, a Cardiothoracic Surgeon at NCH, said.

“It was really hard. And when Angela was on ECMO, we had three to four others also on the machines at the same time, and there was usually one perfusionist in house covering all the ECMOs. It was a challenge,” Chandra said.

“These patients have really high risk of mortality,” Dr. Gaston Cudemus, the Chief of the Cardiovascular ICU at NCH, said.

He said as the pandemic went on, and they more they learned how to take care of patients on ECMO, the mortality rate came down.

“Now we’re close to 35-40 percent mortality,” Dr. Cudemus said.