Ricky Gray’s Amazing ECMO Journey
March 03, 2023
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In September of 2022, Ricky Gray completed the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon. Ricky was one of 1,400 participants and one of about 1,000 competitors who finished the course — a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running. It took Ricky 15 hours and 48 minutes.
“My family and friends kept me going,” says Ricky. “They knew how far I’d come with my recovery and training.”
But there was something more besides the satisfaction of completing a full Ironman triathlon. What also fueled Ricky was a life-changing event two years earlier, one that served as its own medical triathlon: Thirty-one days of arduous life and death drama at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, the crux of which involved weeks spent under the watchful eye of Legacy’s Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) staff, part of the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
On Oct. 4, 2019, Ricky was changing light bulbs at work using a 10-foot ladder. He fell from that ladder and suffered a right pelvic dislocation and a hip fracture. He was taken to Legacy Emanuel, where he was stabilized. Three days later, Ricky had surgery to rebuild the hip socket using plates and pins. The reconstruction went well. But coming out of surgery, Ricky’s oxygen level went low. Because of the type and length of surgery that had occurred, Ricky’s immobile state, and his previous history of snoring, doctors were worried about blood clots forming in Ricky’s lungs. Both lungs eventually developed huge clots. The evening of the surgery, Ricky was placed on a ventilator with a tube down his throat.
Over the next two days, Ricky experienced a gamut of health challenges: internal bleeding, blood thinners to reduce clots and swelling at the surgical site. Then, on Oct. 9, two more surgeries followed — one to install a filter to catch further clots after the blood thinners had been stopped and another to drain a large 1.5-liter hematoma in the abdomen. During the surgery, Ricky aspirated, adding to a downhill spiral. Ricky was fighting for his life. He was given a 5 percent chance of survival.
Pictured: Sharon and Ricky Gray
Pictured: Ricky Gray
Pictured: Ricky Gray
That is where ECMO came in. ECMO is a technology that entirely supports a patient's heart or lungs or both when they cannot function on their own. It is used in certain life-threatening situations. Legacy Emanuel is a leader in ECMO and recently earned distinction as a Platinum Center of Excellence by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization. The designation is awarded to less than 50 medical centers around the world. Being on ECMO would give Ricky a 50 percent probability of survival.
In Ricky’s case, the ventilator was not working. The ECMO staff, led by Dr. Joseph Deng, the program’s medical director, bypassed Ricky’s lungs by taking its blood out, oxygenating it and then putting it back in. In the days following, Ricky’s condition improved bit by bit, with smaller procedures happening as needed. By Oct. 17, Ricky was removed from the ECMO machine and switched to a regular ventilator the next day. Ricky would improve enough in the next two weeks to move to a rehabilitation facility for further physical and occupational therapy. On Nov. 7, Ricky returned home for months of rehabilitation and physical therapy.
Everything that happened to Ricky in October and November of 2019 prepared him for the Ironman triathlon in Wisconsin in 2022. Like the gradual steps of his recovery from mid-October to November, his athletic training started slowly: Some walking, then running, then more running, and then training with a bike and swimming.
Several factors helped Ricky get through this journey, he said. First, of course, were the exceptional doctors and staff at Legacy Emanuel and its ECMO team. “We are bonded for life,” Ricky says about his medical team.
Ricky also believed his faith kept him and his family inspired and strong. “I had only my faith to hold onto,” he says. “My wife Sharon had summoned prayer warriors from around the world. They carried my burden.”
Looking back with the spirit of an ironman and the heart and will of a true survivor, Ricky has found a nice way to sum up the past few years.
“I was never going to give up.”