Jennifer Bardrof was the picture of health: a young mother of two, schoolteacher and avid runner. Yet when she experienced flu-like symptoms, no one expected it would lead to heart and lung failure that required mechanical support to survive.
Collaboration between heart specialists in Buffalo and Rochester saved her life by using extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a technique that uses a machine to oxygenate the blood when the heart or lungs are failing.
In May 2016, shortly after completing a half-marathon at Disney World, the 33-year-old woman caught a virus from her husband and two young daughters and tried to “tough it out.” She went for a walk in her West Seneca neighborhood and “my lungs started to burn. That’s when I realized I might be sicker than I originally thought.”
Yet she focused on caring for her young family and teaching. Bardrof pushed herself too hard, though, and she fainted in the classroom. “I remember sitting down in class and then opening my eyes to see all of the kids around me,” she recalled. The next morning, she went to an urgent care center and “that’s the last thing I remember for about three weeks.”
Blood tests showed signs of heart failure and she needed to get to a hospital. She chose to go to Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, where her mother is a nurse. Further analysis indicated her heart was functioning at just 15 percent.
Aravind Herle, M.D., F.A.C.C., chief of Cardiology at Mercy, said “she had no coronary artery blockages and no history of heart disease. She was very sick and looked like someone who was losing life quickly.”
Then interventional cardiologist Henry Meltser, M.D., implanted a pump to stabilize her heart function while Herle contacted Strong Memorial Hospital, a part of UR Medicine, for additional specialty care. Strong is the only upstate New York for advanced heart failure care and heart transplantation.
“We’ve had a long partnership with URMC’s heart failure team and we know when we call for assistance, they will move quickly to support our patients,” Herle said. “And they’ll work closely with us when our patients return and we resume care.”
Strong’s Cardiac Surgery Chief Sunil Prasad, M.D., is an expert in this life-saving technique and helped pioneer the next generation therapy, known as “walking ECMO.” That technique uses portable devices to allow patients to get out of bed and walk with their device, often reducing complications and improving outcomes.
Bardrof was flown to Strong Memorial and immediately brought to the intensive care unit. A few short hours later, her heart stopped, caregivers performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Prasad, anesthesiologist Janine Shapiro, M.D., and the ECMO team took action to quickly stabilize organ function. Bardrof’s entire family works in healthcare and closely monitored her care and recovery. “Nobody could believe this was happening to me because I’m the athletic one,” she said.
Her “flu-like symptoms” were actually caused by myocarditis, an inflammation of the myocardium, the middle layer of the heart wall. The condition is usually caused by a viral infection, which in her case caused cardiogenic shock and the organ failure.
Bardrof needed ECMO support for 10 days and was on a ventilator another two weeks due to lung complications. She started rehabilitation in the hospital before going home.
“If the team at Mercy Hospital hadn’t implanted the pump, Jennifer wouldn’t have lived long enough for us to be able to help her,” Prasad said.
When Bardrof returned to Buffalo, she realized how long the road to recovery was going to be. “I felt so weak because I lost a lot of muscle tone. I’ve always been active and busy, so taking things slow was really hard.” Cardiac rehabilitation helped rebuild her strength and endurance
A month after she left the hospital, Bardrof was able to walk a mile. A month later, she began running again, slowly.
“It took a while to rebuild my endurance and it was a frustrating road.” Yet she kept training and completed a Halloween 5K run a year ago, which was a personal victory.
“Running has always been my outlet and I set a goal of running the Buffalo Half Marathon because it was exactly one year from the day I was airlifted to Strong,” said Bardrof, who ran with her husband, Jeremy. “It was a great way to show my kids that I am strong and can do it.”
There was no question that she finished. “It wasn’t a pretty time, but I made it all the way and that’s a victory.”