The patient, Patton Village Police Officer Chris Hernandez, was first admitted to the hospital March 8 and experienced weeks of intensive respiratory treatment in the hospital's ICU. Following his rehabilitation, Hernandez was able to walk out of the facility under his own power and return home Wednesday.
Hernandez's fight against the virus began in early March. He arrived at The Woodlands hospital after several days of experiencing flu-like symptoms that culminated in an episode in which he developed difficulty breathing.
“I turned around, and I looked down at the bottom of the floor, and I took a deep breath, and I couldn’t,” Hernandez said in an interview produced by CHI St. Luke’s Health. “I walked over to the bedroom and kneeled down next to the bed and laid my head on the bed, and I was gasping for air. I couldn’t breathe.”
After visiting a clinic in Conroe and receiving a lung X-ray, Hernandez said he and his wife immediately traveled to the hospital for treatment. Dr. Syed Raza, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said Hernandez was experiencing several likely COVID-19 symptoms when he arrived at the emergency room. Raza said Hernandez immediately received a presumptive diagnosis that was later confirmed through a coronavirus test. Raza said Herandez’s case was the first at the facility and the first in the region that was not travel-related.
“He was the first patient in [Greater] Houston that was [infected via] community spread, and I think he was the sickest one among those initial patients,” Raza said.
Hernandez’s condition initially worsened after his arrival at the hospital and its intensive care unit in early March, leading to a weeks-long treatment effort through various medications, ventilator intubation and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, therapy. ECMO involves the pumping of a patient’s blood to and from an external artificial lung for oxygenation.
“We really did end up having to throw the kitchen sink at him,” Raza said.
Despite the positive final outcome, Raza and the hospital staff were concerned about Hernandez’s condition and potential for recovery once the therapy began. While the hospital has utilized ECMO treatments since 2009, Raza said the procedure is higher-risk and is only considered for patients with more severe respiratory symptoms.
“I think initially we were all very discouraged that we were having to get to this point because this is sort of an endpoint. There’s really no other avenues for us to help get him better,” Raza said. “If ECMO doesn’t work, then, it’s the last resort.”
According to the hospital system, Hernandez represents the first Texas COVID-19 case to be treated with ECMO.
After two weeks of the medication, ventilation and ECMO treatments, Raza said Hernandez’s lungs suddenly began to clear up, and their condition continued to improve day after day. Through the turnaround, Hernandez transitioned from medical treatment to rehabilitation.
“It didn’t take long for him to start bucking against it and wanting the tube out," Raza said. "He was ready to go."
After completing his journey toward recovery, Hernandez was greeted by a large contingent of supporters upon his discharge April 15. According to the hospital, well-wishers included members of the Patton Village, Roman Forest and Splendora police departments; The Woodlands Fire Department; the Texas Department of Transportation; and Montgomery County constables and EMS workers.
Before leaving the hospital, Hernandez credited the work of the CHI St. Luke’s Health personnel who helped in his recovery.
“There’s not enough words out there for what they did for me. I just want them to keep doing what they’re doing because they are saving people’s lives,” Hernandez said in the interview.
Raza expressed appreciation for both Hernandez’s recovery and the effect his discharge had on the hospital staff as they continue to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.
“For them to see somebody get to a point where what they did saved his life and he was able to walk out of the hospital ... The No. 1 thing I would say is euphoria, and just an overwhelming feeling of relief that he got better,” he said. “It’s important for our facility to celebrate those sorts of things. To us, it’s closure.”
Marissa Cooper, a registered nurse who cared for Hernandez at the hospital, said his recovery represented a positive moment both for her former patient and for all hospital staff members in The Woodlands.
“It makes you know that what you do is for a reason, and it makes you grateful and appreciative that he had that fight,” Cooper said in a hospital interview. “His goal was that he walked in here, and he was going to walk on out, and seeing him accomplish that goal in such a quick time after being so sick ... makes you proud of the person he is and the fight that he had while he was here.”