After peeling off from the group in Brazil, Kevin had planned to explore Colombia alone before traveling to a friend’s wedding in Mexico. But in a text he doesn’t remember sending, he told friends he couldn’t meet them as planned.
“I pretty much have zero lung function,” he wrote. “I’m not going to make the wedding.”
The friends who’d seen Kevin becoming ill days earlier in São Paulo knew only that he’d taken their advice to find a hospital in Colombia. Unsure of Kevin’s location, another friend contacted his brother, Greg, who enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of State American Embassy in Bogota to track Kevin to a hospital in Medellín.
The next morning, Kevin’s parents, Scott and Judy, flew from Colorado to Colombia, arriving at 9:45 p.m. They struggled to communicate with Spanish-speaking doctors but saw that Kevin was on a ventilator and heavily sedated.
Kevin was transferred to another hospital in Medellín, where for about 30 days he was supported with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). ECMO support involves channeling blood into a pump and through an oxygenator, which infuses the blood with oxygen and removes carbon dioxide. The blood circulates through the body, keeping the patient alive when lungs are failing.
“Unfortunately, he did not improve enough to come off ECMO,” says Dr. Bacchetta, “and it also became quite apparent that he was going to need a higher level of care.”
Meanwhile, Judy’s cousin, a pulmonologist, contacted colleagues about Kevin’s condition in a search for American treatment centers. The family was connected to the U.S. Air Force, which arranged an aeromedical evacuation to the San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC) in Texas, marking the first time, from what they were told, that the U.S. government had evacuated an American citizen out of Colombia.
By that time, Kevin’s lungs were failing so badly, he developed pulmonary hypertension — high blood pressure in the lungs that can lead to fatal heart failure. Air Force Lt. Col. Phillip Mason, a physician and the medical director of the Adult ECMO program at SAMMC, knew Kevin needed advanced care.
Dr. Mason called a friend from the Army: Dr. Bacchetta, the surgical director of the Adult ECMO program and the Pulmonary Hypertension Comprehensive Care Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. With one of the largest ECMO programs in North America, NewYork-Presbyterian has handled ECMO transports from as far as the Middle East.
“Everybody was in agreement that we needed to get here, that this was the best place in the world, literally, to treat what he needed to be treated for,” Scott says.