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Walk celebrates patient’s ECMO journey 30 years ago

Jul. 30, 2020, 8:35 AM

Shawn Drumgoole greets neighbors and fellow walkers at his 30th birthday walk.
Shawn Drumgoole greets neighbors and fellow walkers at his 30th birthday walk. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

by Jessica Pasley

Thirty years ago, Shawn Drumgoole took a life-saving ride to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt to be placed on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO).

At 1 day old, Drumgoole was placed on the mechanical pump that temporarily takes over for the heart and lungs of critically ill patients, allowing them to rest and recover.

Children’s Hospital was the first in Tennessee to employ ECMO 30 years ago and is now among the largest and most successful programs in the world, having placed about 1,300 babies on the machine.

To celebrate his 30th birthday on July 23, Drumgoole retraced the path taken by the neonatal and pediatric transport ambulance that saved his life as a way to say thank you.

“I was talking with my mom about how COVID patients were being treated with ECMO,” said Drumgoole, “It made me think about how it saved my life too.

“It was important to me to thank Vanderbilt for saving my life. I was the eighth patient to be placed on ECMO at Children’s. Did you know that the number 8 means new beginnings?

“I was given a new beginning and I’m so grateful to be alive to see 30.”

Drumgoole recently made local and national news with his “We Walk with Shawn” support network as a result of Facebook and NextDoor posts sharing his fear of walking alone in his own neighborhood amid the current racial climate and protests surrounding police brutality.

Shawn Drumgoole, right, with, from left, Melissa Danko,MD, surgical director of the ECMO program; Lynne Dunn, Drumgoole’s mother; and John Pietsch, MD, who founded the ECMO program and treated Drumgoole when he was brought to Vanderbilt as an infant.
Shawn Drumgoole, right, with, from left, Melissa Danko,MD, surgical director of the ECMO program; Lynne Dunn, Drumgoole’s mother; and John Pietsch, MD, who founded the ECMO program and treated Drumgoole when he was brought to Vanderbilt as an infant. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

He was amazed by the outpouring of support from strangers who showed up to walk with him.

A few of those walking buddies came along to share in the 1.5-mile trek to celebrate his 30th birthday.

The caravan of walkers left Saint Thomas Midtown, known as Baptist Hospital when Drumgoole was born, and cruised up 21st Avenue South to make their way to the front of Children’s Hospital where they were greeted by a group of ECMO staffers, other hospital employees and a neonatal transport ambulance.

Despite being covered by a mask, one face stood out to Shawn — that of the physician who saved his life three decades ago — John Pietsch, MD, surgical director and founder of the ECMO program at Vanderbilt.

“I think this is so wonderful that he is giving back and doing this in honor of the ECMO program,” said Pietsch of the walk. “I’m so glad I could be here. It’s great to see. He just looks wonderful.”

The sentiments are shared by Drumgoole’s mother, Lynne Dunn, who, like her son, sported a special Walk with Shawn T-shirt with ‘ECMO baby 8’ on the back.

“I am so thankful that Vanderbilt was able to save him,” Dunn said. “This is a great way for him to show his appreciation for something that was relatively new at that time.

“He was only on ECMO for about 36 hours. They expected he would need it for about three days, but he responded well to it and allowed him to stabilize and rest his lungs.

“He was transferred back to Baptist and spent six weeks in the neonatal unit and he’s never been back in the hospital.”

Dunn said during the past few months, during the weekly We Walk with Shawn outings that have grown from 75 walkers to upward of 300, her son has decided to use the platform to help unite other neighbors in cities across the country.

“He wants to be a positive influence and use his force for good. No one ever expected his post to generate so much support from all over the country.

“Today’s walk celebrates his 30 years and we couldn’t be more excited and grateful.”

Drumgoole and his mother toured the ambulance, a much larger and more advanced model than when the program began. According to records, the first Angel ambulance in operation in 1972 was a converted bread truck.

The Pediatric Care Team was started in 2013. The program averages 1,500 transports a year.

Just before the group made its trip back to the starting point, Drumgoole gathered the walkers around to share how COVID-19 shifted his plans for his birthday celebration.

“Thank you so much, Vanderbilt and Dr. Pietsch, for saving my life. I am so grateful and blessed.

“No matter where you go, no matter where you are, you are always somebody’s neighbor. Let’s all be the best neighbors we can be,” he said

And with that, as is tradition with each walk, the group chanted: “Bless this Walk” amid clapping and whoops, which quickly turned into a ‘Happy Birthday’ song to a beaming Drumgoole.

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