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Complex Airway Center team helps patient breathe easier

Mar. 24, 2022, 9:20 AM

Vanderbilt’s Complex Airway Center team helped patient Shirley Beal overcome a serious complication following her bout with COVID-19.
Vanderbilt’s Complex Airway Center team helped patient Shirley Beal overcome a serious complication following her bout with COVID-19.

by Emily Stembridge

When Shirley Beal contracted COVID-19 in December 2020, she thought her symptoms would resolve with medication and rest. Instead, the virus put her on a ventilator for six weeks — four of which she was in a coma — leading to severe breathing issues after being discharged from the intensive care unit at her local hospital.

While Beal was learning to walk, talk and eat again after the coma, her visiting home nurse noticed that her breathing did not sound right. The nurse checked Beal’s lungs, which were clear. She determined that the problem was in Beal’s throat.

While breathing tubes allow sick patients’ lungs to recover during COVID-19 infection, they can also injure the windpipe, which the body heals with a scar. “It is this scar that closes the airway and makes breathing difficult even when people have recovered from COVID,” said Alexander Gelbard, MD, associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and co-director of the Vanderbilt Complex Airway Center.

Shortly after she realized the breathing trouble was coming from her throat and not her lungs, Beal experienced a coughing fit which led to hyperventilation. Her son called for an ambulance, and the paramedics offered to take her back to the hospital where she was treated for COVID-19.

“They wanted me to go back there,” Beal said. “But I told them that I needed to go to Vanderbilt instead.” When Beal walked in the Emergency Department, she was quickly triaged and sent to the Department of Otolaryngology’s Complex Airway Center (CAC) team.

“They immediately said they could help me. Dr. Gelbard listened to me and agreed that the problem wasn’t in my throat. The next thing I knew, the whole team was around me talking to me, reassuring me and telling me what they would do to help me,” Beal said.

The CAC team scoped Beal’s throat and determined she would need a tracheal resection due to tracheal stenosis — narrowing of the trachea from scar tissue.

“Shirley needed major surgery to reconstruct her trachea,” said Gelbard. “This is a delicate operation, and our talented anesthesiologists, critical care physicians and nurses are the reason we’re able to tackle it so often. Shirley also deserves a lot of credit — she did a fantastic job of healing and recovering from surgery.”

Beal says the relief upon waking up from the resection was immediate. She is now able to run around her backyard and play with her rescue dogs like she could before she had COVID-19.

“The whole time, everyone at Vanderbilt was making sure I felt comfortable,” said Beal. “I went from thinking I was about to die to them making me feel like I was their family. It was just an amazing experience, because you don’t get that everywhere. The whole complex airways team are lifesavers.”

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