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Nurse Once on “Death’s Doorstep” Learns Alongside Team that Saved Her

Posted on Dec 17, 2020

Hannah Ryan at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital
Hannah Ryan at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

It started off as a “small cold,” as Hannah Ryan describes it. But on Nov. 19, 2006, the then 10-year-old was playing in a doubleheader softball championship game and not feeling so well. By the second game, Ryan was struggling to breathe. Her parents took her to a local hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia in one lung, but discharged to recover at home. Hours later, her fingers and lips turned blue, and she took a turn for the worse. 

“I became sick with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) pneumonia in both lungs,” Ryan explains. “It’s a freak thing that happened — I had to be intubated, and they called All Children’s Hospital to transport me up there.”

Ryan was coming from the Lakewood Ranch area in Manatee County and needed a team of pediatric experts to help save her life. This would require nurses and physicians from both the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) and the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU). Her hospital room was filled to the brim with lifesaving machines, and she was put on venovenous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (VV-ECMO) for 31 days, life support for critically ill patients, primarily to assist her lungs.

“Here is an otherwise healthy individual, and she comes in very sick. I remember she was barely alive,” explains one of the key physicians in her care, James Quintessenza, M.D., co-director of the Heart Institute and chief of cardiovascular surgery at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “We don’t have to use ECMO very often, fortunately, but with respiratory patients, a week or two weeks is common — an entire month was a pretty extensive run back then.” 

Between the ECMO, dialysis, medicine lines and chest tubes, it was all hands and medical equipment on deck. That coupled with antibiotics, time, good nutrition and around-the-clock care from the clinical team members, her lungs slowly but surely cleared the infection. Ryan’s near-death experience changed her life, and ultimately guided her career path as the years went by.

“Hearing from my parents about the little things the nurses did, that’s what made me interested in being a nurse,” Ryan says. “I remember one of my nurses was a Seminoles fan and I’m a Gators fan, so to keep my brain active when I woke up, she would tease me about Gators vs. Seminoles. One nurse made me a Gators blanket. I wanted to be the person with the patient all the time and have those intimate moments with the families and patients and be that extra support system that the nurses were for my family.” 

As Ryan grew up and it was time to explore careers, she knew becoming a nurse was her calling, and she earned her nursing degree. Fast forward to Nov. 19, 2019, 13 years later to the day after she was admitted to All Children’s, Ryan started her first day as a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins All Children’s. To her surprise and delight, she ran into a lot of familiar faces. 

“It was really special to see that so many people who took care of me were still around and remember how sick I was and were so surprised to see how well I was doing,” Ryan says. “Many people never thought I would walk up a flight of stairs again or live without a tracheostomy.”

Quintessenza recalls the moment he saw her for the first time.

“I just remember seeing her, and it was one of those amazing moments where you think back,” Quintessenza explains. “Here’s this healthy, young, energetic and bright-eyed new nurse starting her career, and you think back to how she looked being on a ventilator and death’s doorstep, essentially, for weeks and weeks on end.”

For the past year, Ryan has learned alongside those who saved her life as part of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Pediatric RN Residency Program as she embarks on her lifelong career. She applied specifically to the hospital because of the exceptional care she received as a patient. 

“It’s definitely very special to me. I felt like I was walking next to gods sometimes,” Ryan says. “Especially being around Dr. Quintessenza, Arabela Stock, M.D. and Lisa Moore, M.S.N., M.H.A, R.N. because I know how smart and incredible these medical professionals are, and I have so much respect for them.”

Ryan graduated from the program in November 2020 and garnered many new skills and experiences.

“My peers and I floated between four different intensive care units and saw every condition under the sun,” Ryan says. “I got to connect with a lot of different families and patients, from infants to adults. I learned how to work with all kinds of people and how to not be afraid to ask questions.”

She plans to take what she has learned and apply compassion from her experience as a critical care patient to be a traveling nurse for post anesthesia recovery units (PACU) across the state of Florida. 

“It meant a lot to me to be a part of a team that saved my life,” she says. “I want to become someone who will make an impact in others’ lives, like the staff at All Children’s did for me.”


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