Initially, no other university hospital equipped to perform an ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) was able to accept and admit 22-year-old Lexi Lester.  Like many hospitals facing sporadic bed shortages across the United States, the hospitals contacted for Lexie had no available beds. It was crucial to her survival to be placed on an ECMO which is a life support system that helps take the blood outside the body, cleanse it, oxygenate it, and put it back inside the body. By time Lexie needed an ECMO she was already in a fight for her life.

In July 2021, Lexie tested positive for COVID-19.  Initially, she only experienced mild symptoms but three days later, she learned how dire was her situation. She visited the emergency room at Bristol Regional Medical Center seeking medical care.  Tests revealed her oxygen level was in the 60s.  Normal pulse oximeter readings usually range from 95 to 100 percent. Values under 90 percent are considered low.  Lexie was experiencing extraordinarily low blood-oxygen level, or hypoxia. 

According to an article written by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for Science Insider, the phenomenon of patients diagnosed with COVID looking and behaving in a normal manner while experiencing low blood oxygen levels was first noticed by physicians in March 2021.  She wrote, “Clinicians call them happy hypoxics.”  This may explain what happened to Lexie between the time of her first symptoms to when the ER test revealed she had an oxygen level in the 60s.  Upon her ER visit and subsequent test results, she was immediately placed in the Intensive Care Unit where she was intubated.

Anise Daniels (of ABC affiliate, WJHL Channel 11 in Johnson City, TN) reported the story.  She quoted Lexie’s mother, “Once they did that, they began calling other universities to see if we could get her into a place that offered ECMO . . . 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.”

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A team from Vanderbilt University Medical Center came to Bristol on August 5th and flew Lexie back to Nashville.  While there, Lexie was treated for several complications from multiple infections and even went into cardiac arrest.

In Daniels article, Lexie’s mother expressed her amazement about the care Lexie received at Vanderbilt, “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.”

While Lexie’s strength improved each day, according to her mother, her lungs did not.  She was transferred to the program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham with the hope of being placed on the lung transplant waiting list.  The doctors at Vanderbilt wanted to do the transplant then realized that due to bacteria in her lungs, it was too risky.  Her mother, Sabrina, was told the UAB had experience with patients needing a lung transplant who had similar type of bacteria.  Continuing her work with therapist, Lexie’s stamina improved to a point where she could be placed on the waiting list.  Her mother remained optimistic even though she knew the wait could be anywhere from eight months to 18 months or more. 

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There’s no guarantee that after the transplant, Lexie will be able to breathe in the short-term without being placed on the ECMO

Daniels wrote that each week, a team at UAB meets to discuss if Lexi is ready to become a candidate for a transplant.  Until then, she will depend on ECMO for life support.

Lexie remains optimistic for a bright future and a return to normal life, ““I can’t wait until I’m finally able to breathe and go outside,” Lexi said.

Lexi and her family selected the National Foundation for Transplants as their fundraising partner to help offset the financial cost related to her medical care before, during and after the transplant.  You can follow her journey here.

Anyone can register to become an organ donor at  Living donors and organ recipients can contact National Foundation for Transplants when they need help raising funds for out-of-pocket transplant-related expenses.  We exist to help transplant patients through their most difficult times get to their most wonderful times.  You can support their transplant journey with a financial gift.