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Kristin Patrick and the machine that saved her

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Susan Patrick kept the white book where she began scribbling notes about her very sick baby daughter on Jan. 27, 1997.

“She has some type of severe lung disease– but they do not have a definite diagnosis.”

Kristin Patrick
  Kristin Patrick

Susan and her husband, Michael, had taken 1-year-old Kristin from their home in St. George to her pediatrician in North Charleston that day for an illness that began ordinarily enough with a hacking cough and fever. Then Kristin’s skin began to fill up with tiny air bubbles, as the balloon-like alveoli inside her lungs burst, and she struggled to breathe.

The pediatrician sent the new parents to a local hospital. Doctors there referred them to the MUSC Children’s Hospital, where staff members gave Susan the white book to keep her busy, as they put her daughter on a respirator and lined IV stands around her tiny body.

“Both arms, feet, legs, everywhere had something hooked up to her,” Susan remembered. But nothing seemed to work to restore Kristin’s breathing.
Nothing seemed to stop the tiny explosions in her chest.

A team of doctors explained to Susan and Michael they had one more shot: the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, or ECMO, which provides heart and lung support. Once they put Kristin on it, they gave her 15 days to respond. After that, she likely would not survive.

Susan kept writing, as the days passed.

“She tolerated the (ECMO) surgery and has remained fairly stable thus far.”

Kristin Patrick turns 17 this year because of that surgery and because of that machine. 

The Children’s Hospital began offering the ECMO procedure in 1991. The neonatal intensive care unit numbered among the first places in the country with the equipment and trained staff, thanks to support from generous donors to the Children’s Hospital Fund.

Looking back now, Susan said, “It was hour by hour sometimes. It was an emotionally up-and-down time.” But at some point, the voice that Susan used to write in the white book changed, and she began addressing Kristin directly.

“Today you were able to come off the machine that monitored your heart rate and breathing rate and also the machine that measured your oxygen. You went to the playroom.”

Doctors never pinpointed the exact cause of what overwhelmed Kristin’s lungs. But they can say, conclusively, that the ECMO machine saved her life. 

One of Kristin’s doctors, Dr. David Habib, said about 80 percent of ECMO patients survive.

“I’m sure I told them, like I tell every family, that this is it,” Dr. Habib said. “We cannot predict who will get better and who won’t. But we give them a chance.”

Susan remembered Dr. Habib coming to the hospital late one night, his night off in fact. Dr. Habib told her, “I had tucked my boys into bed, and I started thinking about her.”

Susan and Michael stayed at the Ronald McDonald House, a home for families of seriously ill children, during Kristin’s treatment. They never returned to their own house during her five-week hospitalization. Family members brought clothes; neighbors turned their lights on and off; strangers sent cards.

Doctors, nurses and staff who treated Kristin filled the remaining pages of Susan’s white book, which Susan plans to give to her daughter one day.

“You are truly one of our miracles in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit!”

“You won’t remember me, but I’ll remember you as a sweet, pretty girl. Get well, and grow big and strong.”

Kristin attends Woodland High School and works at Westbury Pharmacy, doing everything from stocking shelves to helping clean to watching other employees’ children. She volunteers with several community groups, prepares snacks for low-income children and serves neighborhood suppers at a local restaurant.

She plans to start college at Trident Tech this fall and then transfer to a four-year school to study occupational therapy.

Kristin has a few faint scars from her surgery. She wears a dainty gold medical alert bracelet to caution emergency workers that she has no pulse on her right side, since doctors tied off her jugular vein and carotid artery after removing the ECMO machine. 

Otherwise, she carries no remembrance of the surgery or the machine. But when she stops by MUSC, someone usually recognizes her from Jan. 27, 1997.