Northwell pulls for ‘miracle’ man, who pulls through

Team effort: To thunderous applause (for the COVID-19 victim and the heroes who saved him), "miracle patient" Tito Velasquez heads home Monday from Northwell Health's Stern Family Center for Rehabilitation.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Do you believe in miracles? Tito Velasquez just might.

At a minimum, you can bet the Valley Stream resident believes in Northwell Health, where Velasquez earned the mantle of “miracle patient” but entire teams of providers did the heavy lifting, repeatedly pulling the COVID-19 victim back from death’s door during an incredible four-month odyssey.

Velasquez, 36, went home to a grateful family Monday, but you might not have taken that bet when he was dragged into the Long Island Jewish Valley Stream emergency room on April 28 with severe hypoxemia – the level of oxygen in his blood was dangerously low – and immediately placed on a ventilator.

That life-saving decision would be the first of many by Northwell Health minders, who quickly deduced that COVID-19 was not Velasquez’s only problem, nor his most immediate.

The ventilator raised his blood-oxygen levels, but only to around 60 percent, a clear indication that something else was wrong. The ER team suspected a stroke, and a quick CT scan indeed revealed a blood clot in Velasquez’s brain.

Richard Stumacher: That’s incredible.

The clot was treated immediately by emergency physician Jason Yan with “clot-buster medications,” an intravenous intervention that helped restore the patient’s cranial blood flow. But Velasquez was not out of the woods yet, not even close.

In fact, despite the snappy diagnoses and quick actions, he was “rapidly declining,” according to interventional cardiologist Kiki Poumpouridis, a member of the LIJ-Valley Stream Intensive Care Unit who realized Velasquez’s body was “unable to oxygenate properly.”

In response, Northwell Health deployed the ECMO-TO-GO team from Manhasset’s North Shore University Hospital, which sped to Valley Stream with an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation machine, designed to run a patient’s blood through an artificial lung, pump it full of O2 and circulate it back into the patient’s bloodstream, all while giving corresponding organs some R&R.

Northwell cardiothoracic surgeon Harold Fernandez placed Velasquez on the ECMO machine, and soon the patient’s blood-oxygenation level neared 100 percent. Finally he was healthy enough to be moved to the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, where Velasquez would spend a full month on a respirator and an ECMO machine.

It was a touch-and-go stretch, marked by a collapsed lung, a second stroke and a series of life-saving moves by providers. Finally, on June 9, Velasquez – paralyzed on his left side and still on a ventilator – was transported to Mount Kisco’s Northern Westchester Hospital, where the state-of-the-art Acute Ventilator Recovery Unit awaited.

During a month in the cutting-edge unit, designed specifically for seriously ill COVID-19 patients, Velasquez slowly improved, weaning off the ventilator, building the strength to breathe on his own, then eat and eventually walk unassisted – a “tremendous journey” of recovery, according to Northern Westchester Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Richard Stumacher, who oversaw Velasquez’s care.

“He never gave up, mentally or emotionally,” Stumacher noted.

After another month in Northwell’s Manhasset-based Stern Family Center for Rehabilitation – and 111 days total in the healthcare system’s capable care – the miracle patient was officially discharged Monday, “very grateful,” he said through an interpreter, and ready to live life “one day at a time, whatever God brings.”

The homecoming was understandably emotional for the Velasquez family, but also a badge of honor (and a bit of a tear-jerker) for the Northwell Health providers who rallied around the deathly ill patient – “one of the sickest from [COVID-19] Northwell ever treated,” according to the health system.

Stumacher said it was “incredible” to see Velasquez stand up and take his first few steps, while Poumpouridis – the cardiologist who helped make that early, critical ECMO call – called the patient’s discharge “one of the most satisfying moments of my career.”

“He came in very sick,” Poumpouridis added. “The chances of him walking out with any kind of function were so low … to see him walk out, fully recovered, made me cry.”