On Christmas day 2013, Jennings wasn’t feeling well; tests confirmed she had the flu. Her watchful parents were discussing the worsening symptoms when the 14-year-old walked into the family’s kitchen in Marshall, Texas, and asked to go to the hospital. Her dad, Mark, a dentist, asked, “Does it hurt to breathe?” Jennings replied, “It’s hard to breathe.”
In the local emergency department, Jennings’ condition immediately deteriorated; she was sedated, intubated and transported to Children’s Medical Center Dallas. “No one knew how bad she was that first day,” Jennings’ mom Dana says. But they knew she needed intensive care. By the time the helicopter arrived in Dallas, Jennings’ kidneys were shutting down.
Treating physicians diagnosed Jennings with H1N1, also known as swine flu, which had escalated to a pandemic in 2009 but was not as widespread that year. Like the seasonal flu, it causes fever, body aches and sore throat, but H1N1 can lead to serious lung infections in some cases. In addition to H1N1, Jennings was diagnosed with double pneumonia and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA); three devastating strikes against her.
The cardiology team at Children’s Health℠ placed Jennings on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO), a machine that is surgically placed to take over the work of the heart and lungs. She would remain on life-sustaining machines for the next three weeks and would lose her right kidney, fight lung infections and develop edema. She was not expected to survive New Year’s Eve.
At one point, it was clinically necessary to temporarily suspend life support. Miraculously, after 10 minutes, the family watched her numbers fall – and then climb back up. After this episode, Jennings only required half the power of the automated support. She had turned a corner.
Trach to the finish line
After more than a month in the hospital, it was time to start physical therapy and restore Jennings’ mobility with a procedure to remove the ventilators. Physicians performed a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure to place a tube that would open Jennings’ airway, help remove secretions and funnel air into her lungs.
After the procedure, Jennings started sitting up. “The trach was the very best thing for her,” says Dana. “After that, it was amazing to see how far she came so quickly.” She remembers Jennings’ physicians stopping by and being thrilled to see her progress, and the warm welcome she’d get from each of the team members.
With the trach giving Jennings the room to recover, she tackled months of physical therapy. She also worked with the team to start weaning off the trach tube, beginning to practice breathing through her own natural airway.
A happy homecoming
Two months after having the trach placed, physicians removed it. One day later, Jennings was discharged to return home to Marshall.
“My heart has a strong connection to Children’s Health due to everything I went through,” she says. “My family members were my biggest supporters, but the Children’s Health staff was my second biggest supporter.”
During her long ordeal, family and friends also shared support and posted daily updates on the Pray for Jennings Facebook page. In one early update, there was good news to share, with a caveat: “We do not want to mislead you. Her good day and your good day are miles apart. When we post that she had a good day, it means she avoided life threatening events and that her essential vital signs were maintained.”
On another day, near the finish line: “The ride has had many sharp turns, obstacles to dodge, loop-d-loops and bridges to cross. A couple of those bridges were closed for repair, requiring us to become airborne and jump across the valley.”
Through it all, Jennings says she learned to start appreciating life more. Today she is an active college student and hopes to pursue a career in occupational therapy.
“Part of my treatment included having to relearn some of the basic everyday tasks, such as brushing my hair, brushing my teeth and dressing myself,” says Jennings. “My dream and life goal is to obtain my certificate to practice occupational therapy and return to Children's Health to help kids. I want to help be an inspiration to kids, showing that if we push ourselves and look to God for support, we can achieve anything.”
The Airway Center at Children’s Health offers multidisciplinary care for the medical and surgical treatment of a child’s airway, including trach/MPAC/airway reconstruction. To learn more, contact the Airway Center at 214-456-MPAC (6722).