From Ventilator to Victory: A story of survival and the long haul effects of COVID-19

Special Reports

(NEWS10) — The Capital Region is seeing a steady increase in coronavirus hospitalizations. At the same time, some people are experiencing pandemic fatigue and tiring of following safety guidelines. That can be a dangerous combination if we forget what happened at the peak of the outbreak. NEWS10’s Lydia Kulbida is sharing the story of one of the first cases in our area, eight months after falling ill in March, a local woman is still finding her voice.

Lydia first met Maya McNulty in December of 2019, 10 months ago, and thought she would make a great feature story about an entrepreneur and author of two books who helped many non-profits in the Capital Region with fundraising.

Lydia is sharing her story now but for a very different reason. Just three months after they met, Maya, a healthy woman in her 40s, almost died from COVID-19. As she continues to recover from the long-haul effects of the disease, Maya is finding a new purpose in life.

“I asked God, when I knocked on that gate, why didn’t you let me in? His gatekeeper sent me away. It wasn’t my time,” Maya recalled.

Maya McNulty spends her time now relearning all the things she did without thinking; how to walk, how to talk, how to eat solid food after being tube fed, how to care for herself as driving is still out of the question, and sleeping on a bed in the living room until she can manage the stairs to her bedroom.

As she goes through weekly physical therapy, her therapist Jackie Gatta asks Maya, “Do you feel your heart racing at all? No. Good.” COVID patients can have issues with tachycardia when your heart is beating too fast.

Another of her physical therapists, Dylan MacPhail, explains, “Traditionally with physical therapy, we’ll focus on the strength, the balance, but working more with pulmonary rehab in general we’re focusing on her endurance. So it’s that safety concern that comes into play, where this isn’t a no pain, no gain, keep pushing kind of thing, we have to dial it back we have to stay conservative, or conservatively aggressive to maintain safety. We’ll celebrate those small victories very slowly and appreciate every little victory we can get.”

We watched a major victory in physical therapy for Maya, she graduated from a walker to a cane, 29 weeks after she was first admitted to the hospital. Not long after another milestone, her first public speaking appearance at Leadership Summit America began with a standing ovation.

While she was in a coma for 30 days, and on a ventilator for six weeks, the victory her family hoped for was simply life itself. Maya’s mother worked in the hospital where she was being treated.

“She saw me intubated that’s heartbreaking and that memory will probably never leave her vision, and my daughter hearing those words from her father, get on the next plane to come say goodbye to your mother, that must have been horrifying for her.”

Horrifying for her husband racing her to the emergency room when she couldn’t walk or breathe, then not being able to see her for 69 days.

“My body was being proned for 14 to 16 hours a day because my lungs kept collapsing,” Maya told us. “They didn’t know what was going on because I was a young female and this was just for elderly people that were dying.”

As physical therapist Jackie Gatta reminded us, “This could happen to anybody, bottom line, it could happen to anybody.”

While that lesson is slowly being learned, Maya is now helping doctors and researchers figure out the long term effects of this new coronavirus.

“I get dizzy, headaches, tremors, there’s a thing called vibrations, I have to tell my doctors because sometimes my body starts to vibrate inside but nobody can see it until the tremors come out and that’s a long haul effect The hair loss, the voice loss, now my hair’s starting to grow back but no female wants to lose their hair.”

She has shared the raw look at recovery on social media, getting the attention of clinicians at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, the Mayo Clinic and others. All of whom are learning from Maya and thousands of other survivors that recovery from COVID-19 can be another battle after you win the first by surviving.

“I had two choices,” said Maya, “one was to share my story, the other was to stay silent. I’m helping them, to understand what this disease is going through, and so I could have kept silent or I could have given hope, and that’s what I want to do is give hope.”

It wasn’t an easy choice, as in the beginning, Maya was embarrassed by her diagnosis, she felt she had done something wrong. But as soon as she started to talk, she could feel a heavy burden of shame and anxiety lift from her shoulders.

“I’m a walking miracle,” she exclaimed. “I will write a book called ‘Miracle: From Ventilator to Victory’ and share my story and put it in the hands of families that need recovery, that need hope, that need to be inspired. I know I’m a walking miracle, but so are they, they’re walking miracles too and that’s a bond we all have now as long haulers.”

She also has a bond with the doctors and nurses who saved her life, reuniting with them recently, a much different time than when they first saw her.

Maya McNulty stands with the medical team that helped save her life after she contracted COVID-19.

Dr. Ahmed Khan, of Schenectady Pulmonary Critical Care Associates, recalled, “Maya came into us at the peak of the epidemic back in March, came in very very sick, immediately needed to go on a mechanical ventilator and during that time she deteriorated quite significantly.”

Crystel Loustau, a nurse in Ellis Medicine’s Covid ICU, said, “She was one of our first, so we were kind of terrified. She was unstable and what were we getting into, nobody knew much about COVID.”

Kyle Stark was one of the nurses who pulled Maya out of her car when her husband raced to the Emergency Department. “It definitely had a lot of impact on us,” Kyle remembered. “There were still a lot of unanswered questions and here comes a fairly young woman not much older than me, looked like she was in good health, I think it was something that startled a lot of us.”

So startling for Kyle, that he moved out of his house for a few months after that shift, to make sure he didn’t bring the virus home to his wife or three young children, two of whom are immuno-compromised. He was encouraged when he saw news coverage of Maya’s release from rehab, sharing it with colleagues who had also cared for her.

“In the emergency department we really don’t get to see our patients after we intervene,” said nurse Daniel Pierce. “We do our intervention and then they go off somewhere else and it’s dark, you don’t hear anything, so to see her up and walking it’s really really amazing.”

An amazing sight considering what these healthcare providers have already seen.

“Not just with Maya,” pointed out Dr.Khan, “but also other survivors of COVID, even ones that did not end up needing admission to the hospital. What we’re seeing is there’s a lot of debilities that come with this disease so it’s not just being able to survive the coronavirus, it’s what comes afterward. We see people that are athletes that are no longer able to compete in their sport, we see people that are very short of breath needing help at home and we see people that have other effects from blood clot disorders to strokes to heart attacks. There’s a lot that comes with the coronavirus after you have recovered from the disease.”

“We had to become family to these patients,” said nurse Crystel Loustau, remembering the emotional toll on healthcare professionals who cared for patients while also connecting with loved ones not allowed in the hospital.

“It makes you proud of what you’re doing,” shared nurse Kyle Stark, “you see the difference that you make sometimes.”

Maya is not only planning her book, “Miracle: From Ventilator to Victory” as she continues her long road to recovery, she’s also contacting lawmakers about how to prepare for something she believes will be needed in the future: recovery centers specifically for COVID survivors battling long term effects.

As we head into the holiday season, doctors say prevention is the best remedy to ensure you never have to fight post covid syndrome.

“What the recent data is showing,” said Dr. Khan, ” is that most of the transmission is coming from smaller gatherings in people’s homes. And with Thanksgiving and Christmas, all-important holidays coming up, it’s super important we follow the guidelines from the CDC and the state officials about limiting these guidelines, avoiding travel, because it’s not simply about being able to live through the coronavirus, it’s also what comes after.”

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