To understand how few other Americans have been as sick from coronavirus as Randy Blake was and survived, consider this:
The transplant center in Phoenix where he underwent a double lung transplant one month ago and from which he was discharged Friday is among the top-five busiest lung transplant programs in the U.S. — and the Stillwater fire captain is only the fourth COVID patient to undergo a transplant there.
Then consider this assessment from Blake’s surgeon.
“COVID gives us a different level of complexity with transplants because these patients are definitely sicker coming to us. There are very few centers who are doing it. This is our fourth one, and Randy’s case is the most extreme short of someone ultimately succumbing and passing away from this disease process,” said Dr. Shair Ahmed of the Norton Thoracic Institute at Dignity Health-St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.
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“He had run the entire gamut. … His lungs were not recoverable.”
Blake, 44, had no preexisting conditions and was in excellent physical shape when he contracted COVID-19 in October and was admitted to the intensive care unit at his local hospital.
“I remember going to Stillwater Medical Center one morning because I couldn’t breathe,” said Blake.
A week later, he was so ill, he was transferred to Oklahoma Heart Institute in Tulsa and was soon placed on the most aggressive life support option for critical patients, ECMO, short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.
The next two months were a haze for Blake.
He had a tracheotomy and underwent several procedures to treat blood clots. By December, it was clear the post-COVID fibrosis in Blake’s lungs was so severe, he would need a double lung transplant in order to have any chance at survival.
One of his Tulsa doctors, Dr. Adel Ghuloom, believed he could be a good candidate and knew someone in Arizona. In early January, Blake found himself on a medical transport plane bound for Phoenix.
Ahmed, Blake’s primary lung transplant surgeon at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute, said it was remarkable that his Tulsa physicians had the wherewithal during a pandemic to reach out.
“There are very specific criteria patients have to meet — that’s across the board for anyone needing a transplant. Then you take a complicated disease process in the middle of a pandemic when resources are very limited,” Ahmed said. “A lot of hospitals are so overwhelmed with patients, it’s life-or-death mode. It’s hard to have the opportunity to think outside the box.”
Despite arriving in far worse condition than a typical transplant patient and the extraordinary amount of inflammation in his chest caused by COVID-19, Blake’s transplant in late January was a success.
From being hospitalized for nearly four months, Blake lost 55 pounds of muscle, and his hospital recovery was lengthier than for a typical transplant patient because he needed therapy to retrain his muscles for basic tasks.
But on Friday, Blake walked out of the Phoenix hospital breathing on his own, amid cheers and high-fives from the many doctors and nurses who treated him. He will spend the next three to six months close by, completing rehabilitation.
“I just feel incredibly blessed and incredibly grateful for all the care that I’ve received, for God watching over me, all the doctors and nurses who poured themselves into me, for the lungs that were donated,” Blake said in a telephone interview mere hours after his release. “I could write a book with all of the near-misses where they didn’t think I was going to make it — and all of that added up and here I am getting discharged from the hospital. It’s a series of miracles.”
All the while, Blake’s wife, Jenn, has been by his side and from afar, managing the needs of their four children, ages 11 to 20. Blake also marveled at the Stillwater community’s support through a GoFundMe fund drive and at the prayers and well-wishes he has received from his relatives, friends, church, co-workers and even complete strangers.
“It has been incredibly difficult, but there have also been a lot of positives, just in the fact that so many people have shown so much kindness. I’m just forever grateful,” he said.
One thing is certain about Blake’s medical prognosis: He will require lifelong medical care.
He applied to become a Stillwater firefighter when he was 20 years old and has been with the department ever since, but now he’s not sure what his professional future holds.
“I would love to go back. I love the job, and I love the guys,” Blake said. “In three months, I think we’ll know more about that situation, but I don’t know if the doctors would even allow me to do that.”
Reflecting on his ordeal, Blake said it is hard for him to understand how “people don’t understand how serious COVID is.”
“Half the people who go on ECMO don’t survive,” he said. “Every doctor in every medical facility I’ve been in and a lot of nurses — they are all a part of my story and they should all share in the fact that I am alive.”
Blake’s surgeon, who coincidentally is also an Oklahoman, thinks Blake is a prime example of why it is crucial for everyone to take COVID safety precautions seriously.
“For the naysayers of COVID-19, Randy is your next-door neighbor. This can happen to your next-door neighbor. He’s a firefighter, for sure healthier than 95 percent of the population, with no medical history, no family history to explain why he succumbed to this the way he did,” Dr. Ahmed said. “Randy should be a reminder for all of us — we have to do our part.
“Take the precautions necessary to help our communities fight this thing and push back against the pandemic.”