Arizona doctor makes remarkable recovery from COVID-19 after last-resort ECMO intervention

Doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center say they recently treated a man with COVID-19 who they describe as one of the sickest patients in the United States. After more than two months in the hospital, that patient went home to his family on May 15.

46-year-old Karl Viddal is a family care doctor, a husband, and father of three. Now he can add COVID-19 survivor to the list.

Doctors didn't think he was going to make it. He was on a last-resort medical treatment called ECMO (Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). Karl defied the odds.

"I have no past medical conditions and this virus nearly killed me," he said.

Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers

Viddal was healthy before he caught COVID-19. He says within days, his body and lungs succumbed to the virus and was hospitalized. As his condition worsened, he was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital and put on ECMO treatment.

"About half the patients that go on ECMO will not survive. We only put patients on Ecmo if their chance of survival is close to zero," said Dr. Ross Bremner, Executive Director of Norton Thoracic Institute at St. Joseph's.

Bremner says Karl became even sicker while on ECMO. His left lung was saturated with blood, he was bleeding into his airways, and air was leaking from his lungs.

MAP: Arizona Coronavirus cases by zip code

Karl spent 55 days in the hospital. For 34 days, he was on a ventilator, put in a medically induced coma, and spent 16 days on ECMO. 

Not only is Karl emotionally overwhelmed at his recovery, so are his doctors.

"It gives us meaning for all we do and it makes exposing ourselves and our families... all worthwhile," said Bremner.

Karl spent some time in rehabilitation, learning to walk, talk and live again. On Friday, he finally returned home to his family.

"I was always somebody who got caught in the rat race, living for tomorrow, not focusing on what's in front of you. You never know when you’re last day will be. The most important thing for me is to spend more time with family and friends. Let people you know that you don’t talk to often, that you love them," said Karl.

Karl survived the longest period of time on ECMO in Arizona. He says a recent X-ray of his lungs shows the damage done by COVID-19 is nearly gone and he expects to make a full recovery.

More on COVID-19

Symptoms for coronavirus include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. These, of course, are similar to the common cold and flu. 

Expect a common cold to start out with a sore or scratchy throat, cough, runny and/or stuffy nose. Flu symptoms are more intense and usually come on suddenly, and can include a high fever. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear more slowly. They usually include fever, a dry cough and noticeable shortness of breath, according to the World Health Organization. A minority of cases develop pneumonia, and the disease is especially worrisome for the elderly and those with other medical problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or heart conditions.

RELATED: Is it the flu, a cold or COVID-19? Different viruses present similar symptoms

Right now there's one big difference between flu and coronavirus: A vaccine exists to help prevent the flu and it's not too late to get it. It won't protect you from catching the coronavirus, but may put you in a better position to fight it.

To protect yourself, wash your hands well and often, keep them away from your face, and avoid crowds and standing close to people.

And if you do find yourself showing any of these flu or coronavirus symptoms - don't go straight to your doctor's office. That just risks making more people sick, officials urge. Call ahead, and ask if you need to be seen and where.

Continuing Coverage

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