“Don’t wait until next week or next month, make your appointment or walk in to get your vaccine today. Trust me when I say that you don’t want to go through what I’ve gone through.” – Kristi Gabriel
That’s what COVID-19 survivor Kristi Gabriel echoes on a daily basis to anyone who will listen. The 42-year-old Gillette resident is lucky to be alive after a near fatal battle with the virus and she is now enjoying her new shot at life.
Her story is one of a miracle. It’s been a long process, tough road and unlikely outcome, but Kristi is back on her feet six months later. She fought it and beat it. She survived the virus that took her father and aunt just three months earlier.
She was given a 1 percent chance of living and she beat the odds. She’s tough, she’s persistent and she’s here to share her story and hopefully reach at least one person who will look at the virus differently and do what’s needed to save a life, maybe even their own.
Kristi, who is now retired, spent 15 years as a respiratory therapist at Campbell County Memorial Hospital (CCMH) and is a lifelong caretaker, found herself on the other end of needing the assistance. It all happened quickly after that February day when Kristi and her husband stopped at Walgreens to get a COVID-19 test because they both had many of the symptoms – fatigue, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, loss of taste and smell, headache, nausea and vomiting.
The had not received the vaccine yet because it was in the beginning stages where only the elderly and most vulnerable population could receive it.
Her health took a turn for the worst before the results came back.
“Within a few days, I developed shortness of breath and my oxygen saturation began dropping below 90 percent. I went to the emergency room at Campbell County Memorial Hospital and was sent home on oxygen. After being sent home with oxygen, my oxygen saturation on my pulse oximeter monitor at home was still dropping below 90,” Kristi explained. “I went to CCMH again and was admitted to the hospital with Bilateral Pneumonia from COVID-19, which caused low oxygen saturation.”
That was only the beginning of a near-death battle with the virus.
Kristi was admitted this time and was placed on higher levels of oxygen via a nasal cannula. That didn’t help as her oxygen saturation continued to drop, so medical staff put her on a CPAP machine. Her breathing still worsened and reality started to set in that this was going to be a fight for her life.
“I was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) due to my increased shortness of breath and worsening oxygen saturation. My oxygen saturation continued to drop, my pneumonia continued to worsen and I developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS),” Kristi said.
ARDS, which can be fatal, is a condition where fluid collects in the lungs and small air sacs (Alveoli). The fluid prevents the lungs from filling with air, depriving the body and organs of oxygen.
Kristi’s condition continued to deteriorate. It was a matter of life and death.
There was no choice but to place her into a medically-induced coma, intubated with a breathing tube and a ventilator. The ventilator provided pressure and oxygen to her lungs, but the saturation level continued to drop.
Turn for the worst
“I was then life flighted to Billings, and immediately taken to the operating room to have ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) cannulas placed in my neck and groin that went into my heart, which was the last possible option to save my life,” Kristi said.
After 21 years of marriage, her husband thought he was telling his bride goodbye.
“When I was at the airport in Gillette and they flew her out of here, I just knew that was the last time I would see my wife. I thought the next time I saw her would be in a box,” Andrew said.
An ECMO machine replaces the function of the heart and lungs. It works by pumping the blood out of the body, adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, warming the blood and returning the blood back into the body. She needed four blood transfusions.
“I was in a medically-induced coma for two weeks. Physicians were not sure if my lungs would recover while I was on ECMO. They instructed my family that I may require a lung transplant in order to survive, but only time would tell,” Kristi explained.
“During that time, I received convalescent plasma, which is a portion of blood from others who have recovered from COVID-19,” Kristi said. “The donated blood is processed to remove blood cells, leaving behind liquid (plasma) and the antibodies. I also received the medication called Remdesivir to help treat Covid-19.”
On a personal note, she was not allowed to have any family or visitors during her battle in Montana. In fact, the only time her husband saw her was one time through a glass window. That was one more time than he thought he would get.
“After several weeks in the medically-induced coma, my body started improving and I was gradually weaned from the ECMO machine and ventilator,” Kristi said.
“When I woke, I was still requiring oxygen via nasal cannula. I had no idea where I was, why I was there or what was wrong with me,” she said. “I had no recollection of contracting COVID-19 or going into the hospital or emergency department. I have very little memory while I was sick with COVID-19 and about two weeks before I got ill. At first, it was very difficult for me to understand. I experienced brain fog as well.”
Kristi’s new shot at life was beginning. Her body took a beating but at least she was on the up and up and finally knew she would see her husband and family again.
“While in a medical induced coma, my body experienced severe muscle deconditioning. After getting off life support, my symptoms included severe weakness, loss of strength, fatigue, shortness of breath with minimal body movement accompanied with rapid heart rate,” she said.
“I couldn’t shower, couldn’t brush my hair, couldn’t even lift a glass a water or feed myself,” Kristi said. “My husband was my caretaker. He was my nurse, CNA, beautician, everything. I’m blessed to have this great man by my side.”
Getting her strength back
“I was eventually discharged from Billings hospital and returned home. When my husband picked me up from the hospital, I was too weak to even get into our vehicle.” Kristi remembered. “I will never forget how comforting that hug was that we gave each other outside of the hospital, just so blessed and thankful to be alive and together again. He had to help lift me into our truck because I was too weak to get in myself.”
Kristi was eventually discharged home on oxygen and required oxygen 24 hours a day for the first three months. At first, she required maximal assistance to perform the activities of daily living, including bathing, personal care and dressing as she was too weak to care for herself.
“The first two months after getting off life support, I experienced daily headaches. Within three months, I was able to fully care for myself and no longer needed assistance to bathe and dress myself,” Kristi said with a smile.
“It has now been six months since I was discharged from the hospital. I am still requiring oxygen at night while sleeping,” said Kristi. “I still have occasional weakness, fatigue and heart palpitations, which is really noticed when trying to do anything that requires physical activity like walking or household tasks.”
A couple months after getting home from the hospital Kristi experienced massive hair loss from being so ill.
“I lost about 50 percent of my hair over the course of about a month. My hair is starting to grow back, but it will be months until it returns to normal,” she said of her current issues. I have also experienced significant vision loss, which is not common according to my optometrist. Even with the long-term symptoms, I am beyond blessed to be here today.”
Kristi stressed that she is beyond thankful for everyone that played a role in saving her life. From Campbell County Health to Guardian Life Flight to the Billings Clinic.
“I wouldn’t be here today. The quick response on their part and getting me transferred so quickly is what saved my life. I’m beyond blessed to have been so fortunate to have such an incredible compassionate medical team provide such wonderful care,” she said. “I have seen multiple physicians that have told me I had a less than 1 percent chance of survival with as sick as I got from COVID-19. I am by far one of the sickest patients to survive COVID-19 and recover. There are many others that have been severely ill and weren’t lucky enough to have ECMO available or to survive. I feel truly blessed to be here today to share my story with others.”
Kristi and her husband hope their story can save a life. That’s the only reason they opened up to share their personal journey in the public light.
“I do not want others to go through what I have been through. I care about others and find it very devastating to hear others being treated for severe COVID-19 illness when most of the severe illness can be avoided with the vaccine,” she said. “I wore a mask and took proper precautions to avoid COVID-19; yet it still happened to me. Please think about your family, parents and children. If nothing else, please get vaccinated for them.”
Andrew hopes their story prevents other stories like this one.
“We know there’s people out there that will give a thumbs up and thumbs down about the vaccine, and that’s okay. But if there is just one person Kristi can touch and who takes COVID-19 more serious and saves just one life, then putting our name out there about her life story has been worth it. Just one,” Andrew said.
To learn where you can get a COVID-19 vaccine in Campbell County, or for more information about COVID-19 vaccines, please visit www.cchwyo.org/c19vaccine.