On April 15, Etienne Fontaine noticed that his father, Edner, was struggling to breathe while on a Zoom call with his congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. As the night wore on, Edner’s condition worsened, and around 1 a.m., Etienne found him screaming in his bedroom as he fought for air.
On the advice of Etienne’s sister-in-law, a nurse at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, Edner, 78, was taken to Southside from his home in Central Islip, where he tested positive for Covid-19. Over the following month and a half, Edner was placed in two medically induced comas, each lasting longer than a week, and he needed the help of ventilators and a tracheotomy to breath during his time in and out of the intensive care unit.
“Every time I saw the number of the hospital calling me, if I was standing up or driving, I would pull over or sit down, and my heart was just pumping,” recalled Etienne, 44, who is in the Navy Reserve. “I didn’t know what would happen if I was given bad news, but I always kept thinking positive.”
His father recovered from the virus late last month, but remained weak after spending so much time on a ventilator, and needed rehabilitation to breathe on his own again. So he was transferred to Glen Cove Hospital’s new Acute Ventilator Recovery Unit, which occupies a once dormant wing of the hospital that was recently repurposed to help coronavirus patients make the transition from ventilators to breathing without mechanical assistance. The unit, which cost roughly $1 million to construct, provides up to 16 patients at a time with respiratory and physical therapy, along with round-the-clock care by physicians, nurses and dietitians.
Dr. Brad Sherman, the hospital’s medical director, said the AVRU was the first unit of its kind in the country, providing short-term care to ICU patients who have depended on ventilators so they can eventually be moved to more traditional rehabilitation facilities and make a full recovery. It is one of two AVRUs in the Northwell Health system, now complemented by another at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco.
It is difficult to predict the length of a patient’s recovery in the unit because medical experts are still learning about Covid-19, Sherman explained, but the hospital is hoping to move patients to the next level of care within two weeks of their arrival.
Kerri Scanlon, Glen Cove Hospital’s executive director, said the AVRU is a “major strategic move” for the Northwell system, because it will ease the stress on ICUs that were filled to capacity with coronavirus patients over the past few months. Under normal conditions, Scanlon said, patients move in and out of ICU beds every few days, but throughout the pandemic, many have remained in intensive care for a month or longer, hindering hospitals’ ability to focus on their rehabilitation — and making a rehabilitation hub like the AVRU a necessity.
Dr. Josh Case, Northwell’s medical director for clinical operations and hospital medicine, said the unit has brought hope to patients and their families, as well as doctors and nurses. Case mentioned a nurse from Florida who has worked in several hospitals in the Northwell system during the pandemic. “A lot of patients, unfortunately, passed away, and a lot of hers had,” he said. When she finally saw a patient who had been on a ventilator walking, Case said, “It quite literally brought her to tears because of what this unit has so quickly done for our patients and for her patient.”
After just a few days in the AVRU, Edner Fontaine was able to sit up and talk with Etienne on FaceTime, no longer needing a ventilator. Now, watching his father laughing and walking again on the screen of his phone, Etienne said he was relieved and excited that he would be able to bring him home in a few weeks, once his recovery is complete.
“I’m glad that he got a chance to get down there, because I didn’t know if he was going to be able to fully recover his memory and everything,” Etienne said. “But he was able to stand up in two or three days with all of this memory and everything still there, and it’s wonderful. I don’t know how to thank the doctors and nurses because they’re really doing a good job there.”