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'Miracle Boy' Michael Survives Near-Drowning

Posted on Sep 15, 2017

Michael, with his parents, Joseph and Lisa.

On the day he was discharged from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, young Michael sat in a chair, reflecting on the past week of his life. The 10-year-old with big blue eyes and bright red hair was filled with emotions–grateful, yet worried about how his near-drowning experience affected his loved ones.

“I feel like I hurt my family members,” Michael says. His dad, Joseph, says that’s just who he is – always thinking about others’ feelings first.

Michael, known to be a strong swimmer who loves the water, was in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital for a week. He nearly drowned while playing on a pool obstacle course in Sarasota.

“I’m doing the course with my friend, and my leg gets stuck,” Michael reflects. “I slip, and I can’t get up. I keep pushing and remember getting above the water. The next thing I know, I’m at the hospital.”
Michael was with his best friend and his family, while Michael’s parents, Joseph and Lisa, were enjoying a weekend together in Tampa.

“It was kind of like his last hurrah of the summer,” Joseph says. “Of course, it’s the phone call you never want to hear. It’s one you can only try to comprehend.”

Michael sunk to the bottom of the 6-foot-deep pool for 60 to 90 seconds. An employee started chest compressions, and Michael quickly was taken to a local hospital. It wasn’t long before the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital LifeLine critical care transport team took him via helicopter to receive the expert pediatric care he desperately needed.

“The biggest problem he had was getting adequate oxygen into the bloodstream because his lungs were so sick,” explains Thomas A. Nakagawa, M.D., FAAP, FCCM, chief of the Division of Critical Care Medicine and director of the PICU at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “Anytime the body is without oxygen, which can happen with a submersion injury or drowning, you have to worry about the effects of lack of oxygen on the brain.”

An initial assessment of Michael by Laura Vose, D.O., the pediatric intensivist who admitted Michael, concluded he might need extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, which is a heart and lung machine that assists the lungs in functioning better in extremely critical situations. But overnight through aggressive medical management, things changed.

“The PICU team, through a lot of hard work, was able to improve his oxygenation through changes in ventilator strategies that allowed him to get through the night,” explains Nakagawa, who cared for Michael the following day. “Aggressive medical management overnight improved his oxygenation so that by the next morning his lungs were better than when he first came in.” 

His brain function looked promising and the team began weaning him off of ventilator support. The critical care team always stayed positive for Michael’s parents, who were admittedly sleep deprived and worried. But as each day passed, Michael got stronger.

“The nurses started calling him ‘Miracle Boy’ immediately,” Joseph says. “They were so reassuring. They would say, ‘He’s doing good,’ and ‘Everything’s looking really good.’ ”

Michael’s recovery included care from the dedicated pediatric transport team and entire critical care team–doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, dietitians, pharmacists and many others.

“There’s a lot of experts within our institution that make things happen,” Nakagawa says. “They helped save Michael’s life and improve his chances for a good recovery. The team also helped support Michael’s family through a tragic and difficult time as they worried each hour if Michael would survive with a good neurologic recovery.”

For physicians, their roles involve many responsibilities–including offering a support system for families.
“We recognize that parents are in control of their children for the most part, but when they come into the hospital–especially when they come into the intensive care unit setting where they have no control over what happens—that’s really scary,” Nakagawa says. “We try to give some of that control back by allowing them to help participate in some of the care where appropriate.”

What could have turned into a tragedy, quickly became a miracle. By the one-week mark, it was time for Joseph and his family to go home–with a new outlook on life.

“I just have so much gratitude,” says an emotional Joseph. “I don’t even know where to place it yet, but I’m going to figure it out.” 

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