After 80 Days in the Hospital with Covid-19, Patient Returns to Thank Caregivers

When Cory Yager was hospitalized with a severe case of Covid last year, he promised himself he would not give up. His care team had no intentions of giving up, either.

The 43-year-old father from Lewis County, north of Syracuse in the Adirondacks, spent nearly 80 days at Albany Medical Center, kept alive by extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), prior to receiving a double lung transplant.

Most people had never heard of ECMO before the early days of the pandemic, when doctors began using it in an attempt to save the lives of critically ill Covid patients. The most advanced form of life support, ECMO allows the lungs and heart to rest by using a machine to oxygenate blood outside the body. It had been used mostly for patients recovering from heart surgery, or as a bridge to further treatment. During the pandemic, it became a critical tool for patients like Yager who were young and otherwise healthy and were not improving after being on a ventilator.

Doctors recognized immediately that Yager could be a candidate for the lifesaving measure.

Ironically, Albany Medical Center made it a priority in 2019 to train an additional team of nurses in ECMO, not knowing how critical the training would become the following year. ECMO requires highly specialized training to monitor the machine around the clock and check the patient for infections, clots, and other issues that may arise. Staff spend hours at the bedside and develop close relationships with the patients’ loved ones.

But Yager required additional measures. Cardiothoracic surgeon Patrick Chan, MD, said when traditional ECMO was not enough, he consulted with colleagues in Texas to learn what had been working for them. “We placed another cannula (a thin tube inserted into the body for the delivery or removal of fluids) into his subclavian vein, to his pulmonary artery, allowing him to oxygenate better,” Dr. Chan explained. “Then, we were able to get him working with physical therapy to the point where he was strong enough for a lung transplant.”

Coming upon a year since his admission, Yager returned to Albany Medical Center with his girlfriend, Lori Houppert, and sister Shilo Morreale, to thank the team who saved him in an emotional reunion marked by hugs, smiles, and even a few tears.

For Yager, who was unconscious, sedated, or unable to speak for much of his time at Albany Medical Center, it was his first opportunity to thank his caregivers.

“I’m thankful for all of you every day. It’s not lost on me the efforts every one of you took to help me,” he said to a room packed with an extensive team of physicians, nurses, residents, and medical students eager to reunite. “I want you to know that what you do truly does make a difference in people’s worlds.”

“It may have been Cory’s life you saved, but you saved us too,” Morreale added.

Staff remarked at how good Yager looked since they last saw him and they were thrilled to hear that he’s back to cycling, fishing, and kayaking.

It’s a wonderful morale booster for our team to see how well Cory is doing after everything he went through,” said Jennifer Cross, RN, CCRN, nurse manager of the Cardiopulmonary Surgery and Vascular Intensive Care Unit.