Miracle in the Midwest: Family of Four Survives COVID-19
Chuck Drungelo (54) survives after 19 days on (ECMO) life support.
Within the first month of the rise of the 2020 global pandemic, all four members of the Drungelo family tested positive for COVID-19.
The series of events that followed would change their lives, forever.
Just after the Easter holiday, Carol Stream, IL resident Chuck Drungelo, started to feel under. He stayed home from work hoping it would pass — and after a few days, his symptoms worsened. By April 20th he was hospitalized with severe Covid Pneumonia at Northwestern Medical-Central DuPage Hospital. After his discharge, Chuck quarantined at home where his son Jordan (25), wife Diane, and live-in mother-in-law Barb Elkins also live. Not long after, the rest of the family became infected. Within days, all family members except Barb were hospitalized and put on ventilators.
Barb still suffered from low oxygen levels, drops in blood pressure, low potassium, and fever spikes. After three weeks in the hospital, mother-in-law Barb was transferred to a rehab facility for recovery. Chuck, Diane, and Jordan had severe symptoms, and their lungs could not supply the necessary oxygen to their vital organs, which is why they were put on ventilators. During this time, no visitors (not even family) were not allowed near them. Family members and loved ones stayed in touch with Northwestern’s superior medical team through multiple calls throughout the day. By proxy, the nurses also functioned as messengers through whom we sent our love and prayers to them via text.
By the grace of God, Diane and Jordan were taken off ventilators after about two weeks. They were able to breathe on their own again — although it did take several days to be able to speak or even swallow a sip of water. They slowly gained their strength and were sent to Marianjoy Rehabilitation facility in Wheaton, IL to do various types of therapies and gain strength, including learning to walk unassisted, swallow food and drink, and even to speak in a full voice again.
In the meantime, Chuck was not progressing. Our family feared the worst —and that his life would surrender to this deadly virus. The ventilator wasn’t enough and his lungs were completely filled with fluid. The dedicated team of doctors and nurses at NWMCDH tried every type of available therapy at their disposal.
Fortunately, they were one of only 260 hospitals in the U.S. that had an “ECMO” heart and lung life support system.
They knew they had to get Chuck on it — his oxygen saturation levels were dangerously low— and putting him on this machine would give his lungs a break and a chance to heal. And they did, despite the risks associated with it.
To stay alive, Chuck remained on the ECMO machine.The ECMO therapy required round-the-clock critical care. He was heavily sedated and given paralytics to keep him very still. The ECMO machine took a pint of blood from his body, removed the carbon dioxide, added oxygen, and then pumped the blood back into his body again. ECMO meant a continuous dose of blood thinners and a 10-day regimen of the antiviral drug Remdesivir.
Finally, in an attempt to boost Chuck’s immunity, doctors enrolled him in a study to receive convalescent blood plasma from a donor who had survived Covid 19. Within a few days Chuck started to respond to the infusion, and his lungs improved slightly and within 2 weeks, much better. He was taken off the ECMO machine, and placed back on a ventilator, during his time being weaned off the heavy medication he was receiving for sedation and pain. Chuck also received tracheostomy surgery to help receive oxygen through a tube in his neck, which also helped him get off medication.
After a week or so, the miracle became a reality. Chuck was alert again; he could open his eyes and write a few words on paper to communicate with his family. Once the breathing tube was put through the ‘trach collar,’ he was able to speak. Physical movement proved challenging since he had been in a hospital bed for 45+ days. Naturally, severe atrophy had set in, and he was very weak. He started some PT at the hospital and was then given clearance to be transferred to RML specialty hospital in Hinsdale, IL, known for getting pats off ventilators.
Transferring Chuck to RML was a feat unto itself. But we did it. And after only 72 hours, RML’s medical team got him off the ventilator and were able to close up the trach collar. He was progressing pretty quickly, due largely in part to self-motivation — a big driver of this progress.
The most important day for our family became June 18th, 2020 —the day Chuck arrived at Marianjoy Rehabilitation, where he began his journey back into physical therapy where he will work to regain his physical strength in order to stand and walk on his own. He also is doing occupational therapy to be able to take care of his personal care needs like shaving and showering. The good news is that he can eat; but he becomes full only after a few bites. He knows that it will take time and support to gain the physical and mental strength to take care of himself — and we’re very hopeful that he’ll be back to work soon. In reality, it could take many months if not years for a full recovery.
Diane, Jordan, and Barb, will also still face lasting effects such as elevated heart rates, high blood pressure, physical exhaustion, and shortness of breath. Their healthcare journeys are still ongoing.
Our family is forever grateful to the Medical professionals at Northwestern Medical Central DuPage Hospital, RML Specialty Hospital, and Marianjoy Rehabilitation for the exceptional care they provided to our family.
We are also thankful for the neighbors, friends, employers, and loved ones for their ongoing and unwavering support during this critical time for our family. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
The Drungelo Family’s medical bills will be insurmountable; therapy and medications will still be needed after leaving rehabilitation. These unplanned costs will be an enormous burden on Chuck's family; even with generous healthcare benefits from Chuck’s employer.
In the end, we know that there is no price tag on life. Thank you in advance for considering support of any kind during this difficult time for our family.
Raeann Shedd, Sister to Chuck Drungelo