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Renowned musician survives COVID-19 with help from rare form of ECMO life support

"We don't do it except in extreme situations where patients are very, very ill."

WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. — When you're a renowned pianist who has played in some of the most celebrated venues worldwide, working from home might seem a bit depressing. After the month Nachito Herrera has had, he's happy to be playing at all.

"It is a thrill, it is a gift from God," Nachito told KARE 11 via Zoom interview from his White Bear Lake home. "It has been a really, really, really hard journey my friend."

On March 28th, the day he originally expected to be taking the stage at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, Nachito began his journey with a sudden onset of COVID-19.

"I was telling to my wife and my daughter that I didn't feel well," he said. "I wanted to go to the doctor to check exactly what was happening."

"He didn't really have a cough, he didn't really have a fever," said Nachito's daughter, Mirdalys Herrera Tweeton. "He was just very short of breath."

His breathing became so strained that Mirdalys drove her father to the St John's Hospital Emergency Room.

"As soon as they saw him, he was intubated within 10 minutes," Mirdalys said. 

Though Nachito was quickly put on a ventilator, his condition continued to worsen rapidly. That's when doctors decided to send him to M Health Fairview University Hospital to try ECMO therapy.

"ECMO is Extra Corporial Membrane Oxygenation, so it's total life support outside of the body," Brunsvold said. "It's large IV tubes that go into the veins and drains blood out of the body and then pumps it through an artificial lung and then warms it and puts it back into the body."

Not only did Nachito need ECMO, Dr. Brunsvold says they soon realized he needed an even more intensive, specialized form called VAV ECMO, which supports both the heart and the lungs. 

"We don't do it except in extreme situations where patients are very, very ill, but we were very concerned, immediately, that he might not make it. He had both heart and lung failure," Brunsvold said. "At the time, only a handful of COVID patients in China had received (VAV ECMO) and not all of them had even completed the therapy. We weren't sure if a patient who had COVID would survive."

Dr. Brunsvold says dozens of doctors, specialists and nurses worked to begin the therapy and monitor Nachito's progress. Within days, he began to make slow and steady progress.

At the same time, Nachito's church, Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis, started holding virtual prayer vigils, attended daily by people worldwide. After 12 days their prayers were answered.

"I just remember the Saturday of Easter weekend I opened my eyes and I saw myself with many cables and tubes and surrounded by many machines," Nachito said. "That was crazy."

Even before her father could communicate with words, Mirdalys says she received a sign that Nachito would recover.

"When he came to, even while he was intubated, nurses said he (pressed his hands together in a prayer-like position)," Mirdalys said. "When they told me that, I started crying with my Mom. I told them, 'You have no idea what he just did. That's my Dad.' That is his way of saying thank you. If you see any of my dad's recordings, as soon as he's done he gets up and he does that to the audience. Even while intubated and connected to all these machines, he was still aware enough to thank the people around him." 

After spending several more days recovering on a ventilator, Nachito began a rapid improvement. He began speaking to his family shortly after having his breathing tube removed and he immediately began to play. A couple of days later his body was finally rid of the virus and he was cleared to return home.

"Oh my dear friend, I was crying like a baby," Nachito said. "This huge team was working and saved the life of this humble guy, which I don't know if I deserve. All I want to say is thank you so much to all of you."

For now, he'll do that by doing what he does best. He'll happily work from home and keep playing to virtual audiences. When he's done, he'll do what he has always done: press his hands together in his customary show of thanks.

"All I want to do, humbly, is keep offering my music for all of you, my friends," Nachito said.

ECMO has now been used on a few hundred COVID patients nationwide, only 43 percent have been discharged alive. Fortunately, M Health has defied that trend. Nachito is now one of two COVID patients to receive the therapy. The other is now also home and healthy.

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