Quick recovery at UIHC

BY SAM LANE | NOVEMBER 17, 2009 7:21 AM

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With a small piece of gauze affixed to her neck, April Chohon smiled brightly as she paced around a hospital lobby in bright flannel pajama pants — a monumental feat considering she was in a debilitating state just weeks ago.

“I’m lucky to be here,” she said. “It’s just like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”

During the last weekend of October, the 26-year-old had a slight fever, pain, and shortness of breath.

Soon, she arrived in a hospital room in Des Moines’ Mercy Medical Center and mystified doctors with her strange illness.

“It was hell,” said April’s father, Gerry Chohon, 52. “I don’t wish it on anyone.”

After two days in the hospital, Chohon traveled by helicopter to the UI Hospitals and Clinics, where doctors eventually put her on a type of artificial lung known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. The device, with numerous, multicolored cords, boxes with lights, buttons, and monitors, saved April Chohon’s life.

However, she credits William Lynch, a UI assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery, with her miraculous recovery.

“She was completely fine,” Lynch said about Chohon’s condition. “Within 24 hours, she was on death’s doorstep.”

While Lynch admitted he doesn’t know for sure what caused Chohon’s illness, he said his clinical suspicion leads him to H1N1 influenza.

When professionals admitted Chohon to Mercy Medical Center, doctors attempted to treat her with Tamiflu, a common flu medicine. When the UIHC received negative cultures for the novel virus strain, doctors assumed she had H1N1 and the drug had treated the disease.

H1N1 has killed 19 people in Iowa, including one child, according to the Department of Public Health. Around 500 Iowans have been hospitalized for the strain.

After the preliminary, short period of sedation, doctors removed Chohon’s breathing tubes and allowed her to get out of bed.

“Instead of being chained to the bed, being insulted by the hospital, she was walking around, waiting for her lungs to get better,” Lynch said.

After doctors in Sweden tested the artificial-lung machine by leaving a patient attached for an extended period, medical professionals half a world away began to follow. Lynch said Chohon’s case follows this new method of use.

The UIHC Intensive Care Unit has seen at least three other severe H1N1 patients so far this year.

Lynch said that five years ago, if people experienced respiratory failure similar to Chohon’s, they would have been kept on the machine for 10 days to two weeks. If the patient still did not improve, they withdrew support because doctors decided the lungs could not recover.

“What was unique [about Chohon] was that she wasn’t sick for very long,” Lynch said. “Since she hadn’t had exposure to a week’s worth of sedation, we let her wake up all the way. It’s not typical.”

After a mere eight days in the UIHC’s intensive care and only 11 days in the hospital, Chohon left the hospital still in her pajamas around noon on Monday. A cloudy sky, which showed signs of rain, greeted her.

“It was still nice even on a cloudy day,” Chohon said. “It could have been pouring. I get to see my kids, I get to finish my college degree. I’m glad I get to spend more time with family and friends.”

Chohon, a mother of two — Kalli, 4, and Brendan, 5, — is working to become a nursing assistant and said the entire encounter didn’t turn her off from the profession.

After she was released, Chohon returned to her hometown in Nebraska, staying under the care of her parents.

“I’m thankful and lucky,” Chohon said. “Doctor Lynch is by far my favorite doctor on the face of the planet.”

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