A 46-year-old doctor has returned home to Gilbert after nearly two months in a hospital where he almost died from COVID-19 until a last-ditch effort saved him.
Dr. Karl Viddal is the second COVID-19 patient in Arizona and the 32nd in the country to be treated with an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine or ECMO, which pumped and oxygenated his blood outside the body, allowing his ravaged lungs to heal.
He spent 16 days on ECMO – more than any other COVID-19 patient on the lifesaving machine in Arizona – and a total 55 days in the hospital.
A 53-year-old Phoenix man with underlying health issues was the first in Arizona to survive COVID-19 after being treated with ECMO in April at HonerHealth John C. Lincoln Medical Center.
“This is the first day for the rest of my life,” said Viddal in a May 15 virtual news conference at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, shortly before his discharge.
“It’s important to see my family and kids. It’s been 55 days and I miss them.”
Viddal, a family-medicine doctor with an independent practice in Chandler, came down with the coronavirus symptoms on March 21, days after a trip abroad.
“It’s hard to believe this actually happened to me,” he said. “I’ve never been sick in my life really, no past medical conditions and this virus nearly killed me.”
According to a medical bio, Viddal is quite active, enjoying exercising, hiking, skiing, hockey and world travel.
Viddal said he developed a cough on a Friday and was a little fatigued. The next day he experienced shortness of breath and the oxygen level in his blood had dropped when he monitored it.
By Sunday, he was coughing up blood, had a fever and his blood saturation level was in the 80s. A normal reading is typically 95 to 100 percent.
“I knew what I had when I went to the ER,” Viddal said.
On March 22, he was admitted to Dignity Health Mercy Gilbert Medical Center’s ICU.
He was tested for COVID-19 but because the virus was already so deep in his lungs and did not present in his nasal cavity for some time, he had three false-negative results.
He finally tested positive on the fourth go-around through a bronchoscopy specimen from his lungs, according to the hospital.
Initially at Mercy Gilbert, Viddal relied on a ventilator at maximum support to help him breathe due to severe pneumonia caused by the virus.
As Viddal’s lungs continued to worsen, the medical staff reached out to experts at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute, home to one of the largest and busiest lung transplant centers in the United States.
“It was clear the ventilator was not enough to save his life,” said Dr. Ross Bremner, a thoracic surgeon and the institute’s director. By this time, Viddal had been on the ventilator for 34 days.
Viddal was placed on the EMCO machine at Mercy Gilbert and transported to St. Joseph’s.
Viddal arrived to St. Joseph’s with such sever pneumonia that without ECMO, he would have been dead within 24 to 48 hours, said Dr. Raed Suyyagh, medical director of the hospital’s ECMO program.
Bremner said the machine is generally used for lung-transplant patients. The FDA in early April approved ECMO to treat COVID-19 patients.
“When we put someone on ECMO we know the chance of survival is not great,” he said. “Half the patients don’t survive on ECMO.”
Viddal’s course of treatment was interrupted with complications – he had bleeding from his main airway, his left lung was saturated in blood and blood clots formed in his lungs.
Doctors performed repeated, prolong bronchoscopies and a tracheostomy on Viddal.
Suyyagh said these additional procedures are not recommended due to the higher-risk for staff exposure to the virus.
“Thankfully, we had the proper PPE and re-designed intubation boxes for the team to safely perform these ultimately lifesaving tasks,” Suyyagh said.
Viddal also was given two doses of a drug commonly used for rheumatoid arthritis, called tocilizumab to help treat the severe pneumonia.
Bremner said the drug has been used successfully in Italy and China and that lot of the treatments for Viddal were based on experiences of their colleagues in those two countries.
“For the first week to 10 days, it was touch and go,” Bremner said. “What I learned from (treating) Karl is this is a disease with a lot of surprises for us.”
What stood out the most was how some people can get deathly ill from the virus while others do not.
“You don’t want to get this virus if you can help it,” he said.
After Viddal began showing signs of recovery, he was weaned off the machine that he had been hooked up to for 16 days.
“Three weeks ago I was literally paralyzed and couldn’t speak,” Viddal said at the news conference. “Eleven days ago. I was in patient rehab and could barely walk.”
But thanks to his physical therapist and occupational therapist, he was playing hockey in the therapy room the day before his release, he said.
Viddal said he is fortunate that there has been no damage to his heart, kidneys or liver as reported in other patients. He also was cognizant of his dire situation – except for the 28 days he was in a medically induced coma.
After seeing a full resolution X-ray of the damage to his lungs, Viddal said he was optimistic for a full recovery.
Shortly after Viddal was placed on the ventilator, his wife, Alyssa, also came down with the coronavirus. In her Facebook post, she said her symptoms were much milder and lasted 13 days.
She had to take care of the couple’s three young children on her own while “living in constant fear that I, myself, would end up on a ventilator too or risk my children getting sick.”
Viddal said he was indebted to the team of doctors for saving his life.
“They gave me a second chance to be a father, to be a husband,” he said. “I’m glad you didn’t give up on me.”