A fight to survive

Local girl facing daunting health battle

Submitted Photo Virginia before she took ill.

OBSERVER Staff Report

A routine visit to a restaurant has turned into a nightmare for Johanna Cortes and her family. On April 16, Cortes, her college age daughter Virginia and her son enjoyed a late breakfast where Virginia, true to form, ordered over-easy eggs.

That evening, Virginia’s stomach became distended. In obvious concern, her mother took her to Brooks Hospital’s Emergency Room — three separate times, they sent her home each time with azithromycin, stating that she had a pulmonary effusion under her right lung, possible pneumonia and unexplained abdominal distension.

As the night progressed, Virginia’s pain and discomfort worsened. The next morning, Cortes took Virginia to their primary care doctor, where they sat with him for 45 minutes, trying to figure out what could be going on. While discussing things, the question of whether she had ingested eggs recently came up. It was at that moment that Cortes remembered that everything had started with the breakfast they had eaten the day before. A stool sample was taken and Virginia tested positive for gastroenteritis, an intestinal infection caused by salmonella food poisoning.

Virginia was immediately hospitalized at Brooks, however the next day, she went into sepsis, a life-threatening complication of an infection. She was moved to ICU and it was there her organs began shutting down.

OBSERVER Photo Virginia Seekings and her mother Johanna Cortes on Aug. 21.

Soon after this sad turn, she was rushed to Hamot Hospital in Erie, Pa. Hamot had no idea what to do next and stated that she had significant organ damage to her kidneys and liver and that her heart was now struggling to function.

Cortes’ growing concern multiplied during the four days her daughter was at Hamot, as she was struggling to get her moved to Rochester for more specialized heart care. It took nearly three days between insurance hang-ups to finally get her moved to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Once there, the doctors at Strong asked why Hamot waited so long to move her, and to this Cortes had no answer to give.

The terror took a turn for the worse when Virginia flat-lined in the catheter lab within 12 hours of her arrival. Doctors and nurses rushed to save her life, and it was then she was placed on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine (ECMO). This device is an external machine that pumps the heart, because it can no longer pump for itself. In addition, she had to have a tracheotomy and a feeding tube put in, along with multiple drains, to assist with draining the fluid built up due to poor organ function.

The team of doctors then informed Cortes that she couldn’t be on the ECMO machine forever, as it just wasn’t safe, and could cause infection and more complications. They further explained that the only option, was to implant a heart pump called a Heart Ventricular Assist Device (HVAD), in an attempt to keep her alive. The hard part of this procedure however, is the approval to get it, as it is decided by a committee of doctors and specialists to make sure it is a viable option.

An HVAD coordinator spoke to Cortes about the risks and also asked her if this is what her daughter would want, “If you are asking me whether my daughter would want to live or die, I can’t answer that for her but I can answer for me,” Cortes stated. “Please do whatever you can to save my daughter, she’s my life, my strength, my everything.”

Following discussions among the panel, Cortes was informed that the committee was not in agreement with performing the surgery and was told she would probably pass in about three days. Heartbroken, Cortes didn’t know where to turn next. It was then a surgeon came up to her and said, “I’m going to do the surgery, she either dies, us having done nothing, or she dies, having tried to save her life.”

The surgery took eight hours, and they explained that Virginia’s life still hung in the balance. They had little faith that she would recover as her body was so weak and her weight was topping at only 55-pounds.

The surgery was successful and Virginia survived. Sadly though the HVAD is a band-aid effort as she needs a heart transplant to fully recover. As of this time Cortes and her family are hoping that the HVAD will help her to become strong enough and buy her the time she needs to sustain the transplant surgery; when and if that time comes, because of her dwindling body mass, Virginia will require a child size heart.

“There is nothing more cumbersome than knowing someone’s child has to die, so that mine can live,” Cortes said.

Virginia spent nearly two months in the cardiac ICU, another three at a step-down unit to begin recovery and finally several weeks on the rehab floor, where she received intensive therapy to try and regain strength to walk and perform daily activities again. She is now finally at home, off the tracheotomy, eating on her own and up to 75 pounds in weight.

Despite this however, Cortes was also made aware that most of the medical supplies, which total at the minimum $75 a day, are not covered by insurance.

For now, Virginia makes weekly appointments to Rochester, in addition to various therapies three times a week. She’s had to give up living on her own, attending JCC, where she was studying English and her beloved cats, which could have posed a risk of infection to the open wounds on her body where the wires for the HVAD enter. Cortes has fought other struggles in addition to her daughter’s. She can’t work, having to be home with Virginia all the time and the loss of her only vehicle to an automobile accident on May 1 has made getting to all these appointments extremely difficult.

Unfortunately any lawsuit against the restaurant where this all started is nonexistent, as most restaurants have a disclaimer on their menus in regards to undercooked eggs and meats. However, this event did also coincide with a large shell egg recall, taking place at the exact same time; Cortes was unaware of this until after the fact.

Johanna has setup a GoFund me page, in hopes that it’ll ease some of the financial burden from the growing costs of medical equipment and transportation. To donate please visit https://www.gofundme.com/xtx3e8-a-fight-to-survive.