We dare you to not cry.

This inspiring video recounts the story of Elizabeth Asher, who almost lost her life, and that of her prematurely born son, Leo, after she developed life-threatening complications while 22 weeks pregnant. Although all of her vital organs shut down and she was bleeding profusely throughout her body, Lizzie survived thanks to the teamwork of more than a dozen specialists at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Born at less than one kilo at 22 weeks gestation, baby Leo is now thriving too, thanks to the hospital’s dedicated neonatal and perinatal specialists who cared for him for the first five and a half months of his life.

According to Daniel Brodie, MD, Director of the Medical ECMO Program at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, “When we put people on ECMO, people are very, very sick. And then there’s Lizzie. She was already dead. Or mostly dead… It was very hard to ignore the fact that if we didn’t save her, there would be a child without a mother.” But together with Matthew Bacchetta, MD, Director of the Adult ECMO Program, they did the impossible, once again demonstrating their unparalleled expertise with novel applications of ECMO.

The doctors, Lizzie, and her husband explain what happened in this highly moving account. Have a tissue handy.

Read more in a description of the family’s amazing story in the blog post Fighting for Their Lives.

Other stories of amazing recoveries with ECMO can be found on the blog by clicking on the ECMO tag.


Fighting for Their Lives

by Columbia Surgery on January 18, 2013

For Daniel Ezra, March 3, 2012 suddenly turned from a tender night of sharing with his pregnant wife how much they loved each other to every husband and expectant father’s worst nightmare.

It started when his wife, Elizabeth, who was five and a half months pregnant with their first child, began spotting.

“My pregnancy had been incredibly normal,” says Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she is known. “There was no harbinger of anything wrong. I had just had a good check up and was cruising along.”

She was sure the spotting was “nothing,” but to be on the safe side, she went to a hospital emergency room in Manhattan. It turned out she was dilated and immediately admitted to the hospital for strict bed rest. Lizzie wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom or even sit up to eat. She happily obliged and settled in for what she hoped would be a 12-week stay but knowing that her immediate goal was to reach 24 weeks, the minimum age for a baby to be viable.

One night two weeks after her admission, the last thing Lizzie remembers is waiting for her husband to find the Knicks game on tv. The next thing she knew was that days had passed, she had nearly died, and she was in a different hospital entirely: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

Months later Daniel recalls that night, although it’s still difficult. “When I turned around, she had bolted up in bed, gasping for breath, and couldn’t talk. I panicked and screamed for a doctor. Finally one came in and after Lizzie finished seizing asked her if she knew who I was. She pointed to me and whispered, ‘That’s my love.’ Those were her last words before losing consciousness. It was a beautiful, tragic moment.”

Staff started trying to resuscitate Lizzie, whose heart had stopped and whose lungs had failed. Meanwhile they knew they needed to deliver the baby, whose pulse was dropping rapidly. After performing an emergency C-section, the baby was alive but in critical condition. Doctors then told Daniel that Lizzie had massive blood clots in her lungs. On top of that, amniotic fluid had escaped into the bloodstream, causing a rare and severe reaction that led to Lizzie nearly bleeding to death. The doctors said she could die. For hours her blood pressure was in the 40s and her oxygen levels perilously low despite every effort to resuscitate her. There was nothing else they could do, so the doctors called Daniel Brodie, MD, Director of the Medical ECMO Program at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

“What they described on the phone suggested that, according to our normal criteria, it was already too late. Lizzie had been all but dead for hours despite efforts to save her,” said Dr. Brodie. With no time to review her case to decide whether they could help, Dr. Brodie activated the ECMO Transport team and sent them out to get her. His first call was to Matthew Bacchetta, MD, a thoracic surgeon, and Director, Adult ECMO Program. When Dr. Bacchetta picked up the phone, all he heard was: “get in your car, I’ll call you in a minute,” Dr. Bacchetta recalls. He did. The next call came 15 minutes later. He was driving south to the city but didn’t know where he was heading. Dr. Brodie had activated the team, told him about Lizzie’s tragic situation and, together, they decided that, despite the dire circumstances, they had to try to help.

Dr. Bacchetta brought the ECMO machine to the hospital by 11 a.m. that morning. Lizzie had no blood pressure, her heart was barely pumping and her lungs were completely filled with fluid. Dr. Bacchetta quickly placed her on venoarterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a device that replaced the function of her failed heart and lungs and yet the blood pressure barely rose. He realized she was bleeding in to her abdomen. Surgery, right there in her ICU bed, to remove the blood was the only option. Following the emergency surgery, her blood pressure on the ECMO rose. Lizzie was placed in the ambulance with her blood circulating outside her body through the ECMO device and brought to NYPH/Columbia where Dr. Brodie, Dr. Jennifer Cunningham, the ICU attending, and the rest of the team managed her care. Nearly all of her organs had failed. She was in and out of consciousness for two weeks.

Daniel & Elizabeth Ezra with their son, Leo

Daniel & Elizabeth Ezra with their son, Leo

“When I woke up at Columbia,” she says, “ I didn’t know I wasn’t pregnant anymore or how much time had elapsed or that I was even in a different hospital. I had no inkling of having gone through anything unusual. This sounds incredible, but I thought I had gone to sleep, and just woken up the next morning.”

It was only when she looked at her husband and family and saw the “pain written all over their faces” that she realized the extent of the trauma. And although she felt “fine” at that point, she wasn’t allowed to see her son for nearly two months. At three days old and weighing just one and half pounds, he had been transferred to NYPH/Columbia’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he stayed for the next five and a half months. Lizzie didn’t want to risk infecting him or any of the other babies in the unit.

To make matters worse, after surviving the first round of life-threatening health issues, Lizzie contracted pneumonia and went into septic shock. At the end of April, she went home with a private nurse and a “load of antibiotics.” In May, she finally got to hold her baby, and in August, she and Daniel brought him home. Mother and baby are now doing well and improving daily.

The couple is beyond grateful to the whole NYPH/Columbia staff but three doctors stand out. “Dr. Bacchetta saved my life. Dr. Brodie, who followed up day to day with me in the hospital, is a rock star in my family’s opinion. Dr. Schecter, my hematologist is a miracle worker.”

It took two miracles for Lizzie and her baby to survive. The odds of survival for a 24-week preemie are incredibly low. Lizzie says, “It’s been a tough battle for us. But we had named our son Leonidas after the Greek king who fought against the entire Persian army with only 300 men. Little did I know I was picking a warrior’s name. I needed him to be a fighter, and so far he has truly lived up to his name.”


Breathing Easy: How One Woman Got Back Her Future

June 13, 2012

TweetNell Pritchard looks like a normal, healthy young woman as she walks her dog, hangs out with her boyfriend, or goes to the gym. The other day, she played tennis with her sister. She’s 21 years old, 5’4” tall, and weighs 120 pounds—which, for Nell, is a miracle. A few months ago, she was down […]

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Medical ECMO Program Has New Home Online

April 19, 2012

TweetMatthew Bacchetta, MD and Daniel Brodie, MD, Co-directors of the ECMO program at NewYork Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, are pleased to announce a new section on the Columbia website dedicated to this life-saving effort. The Medical ECMO Program is part of the Center for Acute Respiratory Failure, which treats patients who rapidly develop respiratory failure […]

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What is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

February 6, 2012

TweetWe all know what it’s like to bump an elbow or jam a finger and watch it swell up like rising dough. This swelling, due to increased fluid in the injured tissue, is part of the body’s attempt to promote healing. However, when it occurs in the lungs, it can have dangerous consequences. Acute respiratory […]

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The Road to Recovery: Just Over a Year Later, ECMO Patient Completes Bike-A-Thon

November 28, 2011

TweetPamela Abma has come a long way since she spent several weeks hospitalized at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center last year, barely clinging to life. Just as June of 2010 began, she suddenly developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) as a result of an unusually violent reaction to a form of malaria that she had […]

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Center for Acute Respiratory Failure Opens at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia

November 22, 2011

TweetDrs. Brodie and Bacchetta publish review article on ECMO in NEJM NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center has officially launched the Center for Acute Respiratory Failure, which offers expertise in using lung bypass technology to help adult patients whose lungs are rapidly shutting down. Already one of the largest centers in the world for respiratory as […]

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ECMO Patient Survives Acute Respiratory Failure; Proposes to his Girlfriend in ICU

October 24, 2011

TweetOn March 20, 2010, Chris Costa, a 26-year-old paramedic in Connecticut, was taking a quick ride on his motorcycle when he was sideswiped by a truck. He sustained serious trauma, including seven broken ribs and a broken right femur, and was rushed to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport. While there, he developed acute respiratory […]

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ECMO Helps Save the Life of a Young Man After a Football Injury

September 23, 2011

TweetOn August 5, 2011,19-year-old Robert Loftus tripped while catching the game-winning touchdown pass in a football game with friends. He broke his leg — both his tibia and fibula — and was rushed to the ER at Hudson Valley Hospital Center. On the morning of the 6th, he was visited by his orthopedist, Dr. Steven […]

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NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital campuses collaborate to use ECMO, saving patient’s life

June 13, 2011

TweetExtracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, can provide respiratory and cardiac support during severe respiratory illness. The ECMO machine directly oxygenates the blood, providing an opportunity for the lungs to heal. Importantly, it avoids damage to the lungs that can be caused by use of a ventilator, which forces air into the lungs with pressure. Watch […]

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