H1N1 patient rescued by high-tech care

In a span of 24 hours, a 26-year-old Des Moines mom went from normal health to standing at death’s door. The likely culprit: H1N1 flu. Thanks to life-saving medical technology at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, however, April Chohon made a miraculous recovery.

The technology was extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)—a type of artificial lung. Although ECMO has been around for over 40 years, UI Hospitals and Clinics is one of only a few centers that know how to use its potential, says William Lynch, MD, a UI cardiothoracic surgeon.

Chohon’s illness dates to October 2009 when she was hospitalized in Des Moines with a mysterious flu-like illness that caused her lungs to fail. Patients like April typically end up in the Intensive Care Unit on a ventilator (a machine that helps people breathe). Drugs keep them unconscious while the ventilator pounds away on the lungs, desperately trying to get oxygen into the body. Some lungs are damaged in the process.

Instead, Chohon was referred to UI Hospitals and Clinics for treatment with ECMO, a type of artificial lung. ECMO allowed her lungs to rest while they recovered. A tube drew her blood out, oxygen was added, and her blood was returned to her body. During the process, April was able to be out of bed, walk, talk, and work with physical therapy. In so doing, she became one of the world’s first patients in complete lung failure to survive without the help of a breathing tube. “This is a potentially safer way to treat patients with complete lung failure from H1N1 or other causes,” Lynch says.

UI Hospitals and Clinics has successfully treated several H1N1 patients with ECMO. Learn more about the ECMO program.