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ECMO saves man from rare Legionnaires' disease

Steve Reams almost lost his life to Legionnaires’ disease.  

“I just thought it was the flu,” he remembers. “I had a business trip to Virginia Beach and while I was there, I got really sick. I sweated all the way through my suit and felt like I was just going to die at any minute.”

When Reams returned home, his condition grew worse.

“He was totally out of it,” says Jill Reams, his wife. “We'd been texting all day, and I watched his texts just get worse and worse — almost to the point that they were one-word lines.”

Reams made his way to the emergency department and was admitted to the hospital immediately.

“I remember saying goodbye to Jill and she left thinking I'll be there for a day or so,” he says. “From the time she left, I don't have any memory for the next two weeks.”

A deadly diagnosis

Reams wasn’t getting enough oxygen and his body was shutting down.

“My understanding is they were treating me with multiple antibiotics designed for different types of pneumonia,” he says. “None of them were working, so I was getting worse.”

Several weeks prior, Reams had unknowingly been exposed to Legionella, bacteria found in freshwater environments, like lakes and streams. The bacteria can grow and spread through showers, faucets and decorative fountains. And it can lead to Legionnaires’ disease, a rare, but serious respiratory condition.

Because Legionnaires’ disease can be difficult to diagnose, Reams’ doctors made the lifesaving decision to use extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to keep him alive while they figured out how to cure him.

“The ECMO machine extracts the blood from your body, puts it into an outside container, which is like a third lung, oxygenates it, and then pumps it back into your body,” says Reams.

This process gives the lungs time to heal and rest.

A life-changing experience

ECMO is most commonly used on babies, so finding a team that treats adults with this procedure is rare.

“Someone said, ‘If this had happened almost anywhere else in the Southeast, they probably would have flown you to Piedmont,’” says Reams. “So I was lucky to not only have the machine, but to have the team that knows how to treat adults with it.”

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