(Editor’s Note: Lester’s family informed News Channel 11 that as of Wednesday morning, she has been placed on a transplant list.)
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WJHL) — A positive COVID-19 test last July put Lexi Lester and her family on an unimaginable journey.
“It’s been rough but I’m at the top of the mountain now going down,” Lexi told News Channel 11 from her hospital bed via Zoom.
She had mild symptoms and tested positive on July 24. Within three days, she rapidly declined and went to the emergency room at Bristol Regional Medical Center. Her oxygen level was in the 60s and she was immediately placed in the Intensive Care Unit. After several days of low and high flow oxygen as well as a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure therapy), Lexi was intubated.
“Once they did that, they began calling other universities to see if we could get her into a place that offered ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) which is the life support system that helps take the blood outside the body, cleanse it, oxygenate it, put it back inside the body,” recalled Sabrina Lester, Lexi’s mother. “The universities they tried initially were full. We couldn’t get in so we finally contacted Vanderbilt who was full initially but then the next day called back.”
On Aug. 5, a team from Vanderbilt University Medical Center came to Bristol to cannulate her for ECMO and fly her back to Nashville. While there, she overcame several complications from multiple infections and even decannulating from the ECMO machine and going into cardiac arrest.
“The level of care that is involved is tremendous…not only from the family and people supporting the patient is tremendous but also those nurses, and those doctors and those physical therapists that are giving it their all every day and are investing so much in this one patient which they do to every patient but they invest so much because they want to see them get well again,” Sabrina Lester said.
Each day, Lexi works with multiple therapists to regain her strength and ability to walk and talk.
“It is a huge ordeal,” Sabrina said. “You have to have someone who is taking care of the ECMO machine, someone that’s watching the lines, someone that’s watching her, someone that’s wheeling her respiratory equipment, sometimes there are two people that do that…someone that’s following the chair, a nurse that’s pushing the IV pole. It’s a huge huge, huge production but they do it every single day and just the amount of time and energy that they put into it, I think that encourages the patient to try harder.”
Earlier this month, Lexi was transferred to the program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she’s working to get on the lung transplant list.
“Unfortunately, Lexi’s lungs were just not improving. Lexi improved physically, her strength was gaining each day and she was actually able to eat despite being on a vent and being on ECMO,” Sabrina said. “At first [Vanderbilt] thought they would do the double lung transplant but their infectious disease department thought that it was too risky because Lexi does have some bacteria in her lungs that has colonized and their concern was taking the lungs out and being on an immunosuppressant drug would actually cause that bacteria to set loose in the new lungs.”
When Lexi arrived, she found out she has to meet different physical, nutritional, and mental goals to even be placed on the list.
“They have done transplants before with people who have a similar type of bacteria and they have a plan in place that they feel will be a viable option for Lexi however, once we arrived there, she was not a candidate for transplant yet,” Sabrina said. “She needs to be able to not only have the nutritional goals, not only have the physical goals but her mental well-being. She has to really show that she is mentally sound enough to be able to endure the traumatic experience that she will endure following a transplant because it will not be easy and it will actually probably make the things that she’s already endured seem very small compared to what she will do after the transplant.”
Tuesday, additional walks were added to Lexi’s physical therapy.
“I walked..1,030 Feet,” Lexi said.
“So, essentially a lap and a half in the unit, in the [Cardio Pulmonary Critical Care] unit and then outside the unit to the sky bridge to the vending machine and then back,” her mother explained.
When she arrived, Lexi could only walk about 30 feet.
“I can breathe without the vent. I’m only on one ECMO,” Lexi excitedly said.
“Her settings are down on the ECMO machine,” Sabrina said. “That means she’s actually functioning with lower support than what she previously needed.”
Once she gets placed on the transplant list, the true waiting begins.
“It could be weeks It could be months. We’ve heard anywhere from eight months to 18 months because the thing with lungs is that you have to have the appropriate size that fits in the body,” Sabrina said.
Each week, a team at UAB meets to discuss if Lexi is ready to become a candidate for a transplant.
“She will maintain the life support system, the ECMO the entire time. There is a possibility that she will come out of the transplant on ECMO and they will need to wean her off. That’s just unknown at this point,” Sabrina said. “She will be inpatient until the transplant occurs then she will remain there for three months. Once she finishes that three-month period, then she will be allowed to become an outpatient but she needs to remain in that area so she can get to appointments and see her doctors frequently within that first year after the transplant.”
Until then, Lexi continues to press on.
“I can’t wait until I’m finally able to breathe and go outside,” Lexi said.
Several fundraisers are in the works to help Lexi and her family.
One is online through the National Foundation for Transplants.
Locally, Community Baptist Church in Bristol is hosting a Facebook Live benefit auction on June 11 at 6 p.m. Black Wolf Harley Davidson in Bristol, Virginia is hosting a benefit ride on June 18 at 11 a.m. Clear Creek Golf Club in Bristol, Virginia is hosting a golf tournament on June 24 at 2 p.m.