For Michael Hurley, the number 17 is symbolic and memorable. Just 17 years ago, Michael was 17 when he was admitted into Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent on July 31, 2001, a key turning point in his life. This would be the beginning of a series of near-death experiences over the next several months for Michael, an experience that forever changed the trajectory of his life.
Now 34, Michael recounts how a cumbersome cough almost proved deadly. This is his story and what he refers to as his “life-defining moment.”
“. . . Just a cold; maybe bronchitis, I thought. Nothing to worry about. So, I kept to my routine. The coughing worsened quickly. It wouldn’t be long before I could not make it through an entire night without waking up amid a violent coughing fit, usually loud enough to awaken my parents. They would come to my room with glasses of water and bottles of Robitussin to get me through the night,” Michael reflected in a recent message he posted on his personal Facebook page.
Soon after, his parents scheduled an appointment with his longtime family doctor. “After an exam and a review of the chest x-ray he ordered, he diagnosed me with walking pneumonia, gave me a five-day course of Zithromax, and sent me on my way. Soon after my appointment, about the most terrifying thing I could imagine started happening with rapidly increasing frequency: my coughing fits began to produce large amounts of blood,” Michael shared.
A concerned Michael told his dad, “I think something is really wrong with me.”
Fast forward to a few hours later, and Michael was admitted to Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). “I was tested for tuberculosis and just about every scary disease imaginable,” he said.
His diagnosis: Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome or ARDS. His angel in a white lab coat: Dr. Kay Sichting of the pediatric critical care team.
“ARDS is a rapidly progressive disease occurring in critically ill patients. In ARDS, fluid accumulates in the lungs making breathing very difficult or impossible as in Michael’s case. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fast breathing, cough, fever and chest pain.”
Michael reflected on those first few days in the hospital, “I remember lying in that bed, my parents in protective face masks by my bedside. I wore an oxygen mask that covered my entire nose and mouth. I lost all sense of time. I don’t remember if I slept. I don’t know how much time had passed. The next thing I remember was being told by a doctor that they needed to insert a ventilator to help me breathe (according to my discharge summary this was at 11 a.m. the next day).
“Unbeknownst to me, at least consciously, my condition was getting much direr. My parents were instructed to gather my brothers and any family members. A priest was summoned to perform Last Rites. The first couple of nights, my doctors tried their best to prepare my family for the worst: that I was very sick, and my odds of surviving were not good.”
Michael’s illness was a mystery to many of his care providers at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital because he had no history of ever being sick. “I’d never broken a bone … I’d never had a cavity in my life,” he said.
Dr. Sichting and the care team decided to place Michael on a heart and lung bypass machine called Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO).
According to Dr. Sichting, Michael’s lungs were failing and could not provide enough oxygen to his body. “He had a greater than 90 percent chance of dying so we proceeded to place him on ECMO to give him the best chance of survival,” she added. “We could rest his lungs and allow them to time to heal while ECMO provided oxygen and removed carbon dioxide from his blood.”
An ECMO machines uses an artificial lung and blood pump. The patient’s blood passes through the ECMO machine with the artificial lung removing carbon dioxide and adding oxygen into the blood, which is then pumped back into the patient. “Once a patient’s lungs improve, the patient is weaned off ECMO,” Dr. Sichting said.
Michael spent 24 days on the ECMO machine.
“Following my discharge on September 25, 2001, I spent about a month in a rehabilitation hospital doing physical and occupational therapy. It was grueling, painful and I was often depressed and full of defeat. But, I kept moving forward. I slowly went from wheelchair to walker, to quad cane, to straight cane, to just orthotic leg braces, until the summer of the following year when I could walk without any assistance. My lung function measures slowly returned to normal ranges. While I am not the same person that I was when I walked into that hospital, I’ve seen some amazing things and met some incredible people over these last seventeen years.”
Michael admits to having some bouts with the trauma of ARDS. He shares that post-traumatic stress, anger, anxiety, depression, insomnia, mood swings, nightmares, panic attacks, paralyzing fear of reoccurrence and other cognitive issues, have been part of his recovery.
He has found peace and solace with organizations such as the ARDS Foundation, which he’s been able to share his story and meet new friends.
Recently, Michael visited Indianapolis to reconnect with his caregivers, many of whom are still employed at St. Vincent. “I was a stranger to these people when I entered that hospital, but they treated me with such incredible, thoughtful care that I don’t think I have the words to articulate my gratitude. I measure any healthcare I receive these days with what I received then, and I have yet to find any group of people who are so passionate about what they do.”
Michael affectionately refers to his care team as the “Dream Team.” One member of this illustrious team is Karol Craig, who has been with St. Vincent for more than 18 years. Karol recently caught up with Michael during his recent visit.
"Michael was so sick for a long time and is an example of how it takes a team to make kids like him well. I admire how hard he has worked to recover mentally, physically and emotionally after his illness, and I am so proud of the adult he has become. It was such a joy to see him again. Seeing him is the reason why I work in Pediatric Critical Care,” said Karol, who has been a nurse for more than 27 years.
Susan Chernoff, another nurse who worked in the PICU when Michael was a patient, fondly remembers his time in the hospital. “I could go on and on about the impact that he had on our lives. Michael will always be very special to all of us. I feel so many emotions when I think of his journey, and I feel very blessed to have been a part of it. He is an amazing man, and I'm so proud of him.”
These days, Michael is married and living in Austin, Texas. He is new to the Lone Star State, having spent the last four years in Seattle.
He loves to travel with his best friend wife, Leeza. Some of their favorite destinations include Australia and Hong Kong, where they spent two weeks on their honeymoon. They also have a "crazy chihuahua" named Toby and a cat, Chantilly. Michael is an avid photographer and loves displaying his work on social media (@michaelscotthurley).
“If you didn’t know me and to look at my life today, you probably would have no idea what I’ve been through,” he said, adding that only a few scars can be seen on his chest, outlines of the tracheotomy he received.
It’s hard to believe that 17 years have passed, he reflected.
“Cheers to seventeen years!”
Photo credit: Michael Hurley