Last summer, 3-year-old Kaitlyn Duong caught a common virus. It should’ve amounted to nothing more than a typical childhood flu. She was prescribed rest and fluids; a dose of antibiotics when the doctor heard a touch of pneumonia. No major cause for concern.

But then her breathing pattern changed. Mom Cammie stood by Kaitlyn’s bed and started counting, timing how many breaths she took each minute. This time, when Cammie and husband Nhan called the doctor, they got the response they’d been dreading: Bring Kaitlyn to the hospital immediately…

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It Escalated Quickly

By the time they got to Connecticut Children’s Emergency Department, Kaitlyn’s oxygen levels were already low. Soon, she was in respiratory failure.

Over the days that followed, a huge team surrounded her, eventually using every technology and technique possible to help her breathe.

“She was always a very healthy girl. Never sick, nothing ever wrong. This virus just hit her. It escalated so quickly,” says Cammie. “Suddenly, we were at the very last resort that could save our daughter’s life.”

Technology Beyond Imagination: ECMO for Babies & Children

When Kaitlyn went into respiratory failure, six pediatric experts were immediately at her side, including emergency medicine and critical care physician Adam Silverman, MD.

They attempted feeding air and oxygen first through nose tubes, then a BiPap machine and mask. Nothing helped. With few options left, Cammie and Nhan made the difficult decision to intubate Kaitlyn. But her oxygen levels kept dropping.

“Dr. Silverman came out and said the last thing that could possibly save our daughter was ECMO,” remembers Cammie.

ECMO stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, a life support system for patients with severe heart, kidney or lung failure. The technology pumps blood out of the body, adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide, then pumps it back in.

It’s a complex, sensitive setup, and it requires a special team to run it around the clock. Connecticut Children’s Critical Care physicians, surgeons and coordinators all have extensive training at the nation’s top ECMO centers. During the first night Kaitlyn was on ECMO, Heather Schlott, MD, spent over six hours checking and rechecking every tube and pump for Kaitlyn. Others took turns staying with Kaitlyn, continuously monitoring the system.

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Connecticut Children’s is one of the very few pediatric hospitals that does ECMO,” says Cammie. “I’m so grateful for that. Our daughter’s life was on the line.

Cammie- Kaitlyn's Mom

For 14 days, as Kaitlyn lay sedated, ECMO functioned as her lungs.

“We were afraid to think of anything beyond the next day,” says Cammie. “You see your baby laying there unconscious, tubes coming out of her and a machine breathing for her. The machine is trying to work, but her body is fighting against it. There are four people in the room, just to keep it working. Every day you’re holding your breath, hoping they can buy Kaitlyn’s lungs enough time to recover.”

Kaitlyn and core members of her care team during her stay at Connecticut Children’s

Recovery Beyond Imagination: “She Came Back Really Strong”

Meanwhile, other pediatric experts were solving the puzzle of Kaitlyn’s virus. Connecticut Children’s Pediatric Surgery team took a secretion sample from deep inside her lungs. With results in hand, the Infectious Diseases team found the answers Kaitlyn needed.

“We asked the doctors so many questions. Every single time, they answered us honestly and with detail,” says Cammie. “Every time.”

At last, Kaitlyn was able to come off ECMO and wake up from sedation. It was a delicate transition, as her body readjusted to functioning on its own. For the first few days, a pulmonologist came by every two hours to help clear her lungs. A respiratory therapist coached her through lung-strengthening exercises, and fashioned an extra-small mask for the BiPap machine to support her breathing. Physical therapy and occupational therapy specialists helped her relearn how to use her muscles again, from grabbing a small object to sitting, standing and eventually walking again.

Amazingly, within about a week, she was healthy, breathing on her own, and ready to leave the intensive care floor.  

“She came back really strong, very quickly,” says Cammie.

She made sure everyone in the PICU knew it — especially “Spider Man,” her nickname for critical care pediatrician Robert Parker, DO.

“On her last day at the PICU, she was showing off, showing Dr. Parker her karate moves and jumps,” laughs Cammie. “Dr. Parker was like, ‘Yep, we have to let you go today.’”

Kaitlyn and her team at Connecticut Children's

Commitment Beyond Imagination: “They Weren’t Giving Up”

When Kaitlyn turned 4 years old this year, she and Cammie brought colorful cupcakes to Connecticut Children’s — “to celebrate the men and women who made this birthday possible,” says Cammie. Back home in Avon, she also celebrated with family, including her two big sisters. She was at her energetic, competitive, karate-kicking best.

Through all the festivities, Cammie couldn’t help but think back to Kaitlyn’s time at Connecticut Children’s.

It took care beyond imagination — in technology, teamwork and sheer dedication — to save their daughter.

One memory kept surfacing. Kaitlyn had been on ECMO for more than a week. Cammie and Nhan were so scared to leave her side, they’d barely been home. They were both exhausted and on edge, and losing hope that their daughter could get through this.

Then Cammie looked inside Kaitlyn’s room.

“I saw all the nurses and doctors around Kaitlyn,” she says. “They were constantly on their feet, working, making sure they were doing everything they could for her. No matter how difficult it was, they weren’t giving up.”

“We all want our children to grow up in a safe environment, to control what we can to keep our children safe. Unfortunately, life threw us a curveball that was impossible to dodge,” she adds. “Thank goodness we had the men and women at Connecticut Children’s. They were amazing. They saved our baby’s life.”

Kaitlyn and her mom, Cammie