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'I Just Thought I Was In A Dream': One Iowan's Story Of Surviving COVID-19

Courtesy of University of Iowa Health Care Marketing and Communications
Waterloo resident Aquarius Bunch is with Dr. Sharon Beth Larson of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics during a follow-up appointment in June.

Though many people who have been seriously ill from COVID-19 are older or have underlying health conditions, it’s still unclear what causes certain people to get really sick from the coronavirus. Waterloo resident Aquarius Bunch had been a healthy 27-year-old working at an assisted living facility when she got COVID-19. 

When Bunch tested positive for COVID-19, she quarantined alone at home hoping to ride out her fever and cough.

"I was taking several baths and showers a day. I was checking my temperature. I was drinking tea. I was staying hydrated. I couldn't really eat that much," she said.

But Bunch never got better. Instead, she got sicker to the point where she went to the emergency room in Waterloo.

"I really don't remember much. I just remember they were checking my temperature. They gave me some Tylenol," she said. "And I thought I was getting ready to go home. That's what I remember."

Then Bunch’s condition deteriorated fast. She had a seizure, and doctors decided she would need to be transferred to Iowa City.

"So they quickly contacted our team at the University of Iowa," said Sharon Beth Larson, a doctor at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, "to say we have a COVID-19 patient who has a periviable fetus. So this is a fetus at an age where it is not likely to survive outside the uterus."

Credit Courtesy of The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
Courtesy of The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
Sharon Beth Larson, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Iowa, is the surgical director of the hospital's ECMO program. The procedure has been used to save some of the sickest COVID-19 patients.

Larson said there was something else to worry about. Not only did Bunch have COVID-19, she was six months pregnant, and her lungs were failing.

"She was at that point, not responsive. She was sedated. She was paralyzed. She was on the mechanical ventilator," Larson said.

Larson, a cardiothoracic surgeon, was called in because Bunch needed more than that ventilator to survive. Her organs still weren’t getting enough oxygen.

Her only chance was a complex, invasive life support procedure known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO. 

Larson said ECMO is used on just 1 to 2 percent of the sickest COVID-19 patients. It involves surgically attaching tubes and monitors to pump oxygen into the blood. This would give Bunch’s lungs a chance to heal.

"And then we can wean the support and let the patient continue to recover," Larson said.

Larson is the surgical director for UIHC's ECMO program. She said the procedure is used on people who have failing hearts or lungs, like those who are awaiting transplants, as type of bridge. This can also work for COVID-19 patients, the odds were stacked against patient like Bunch.

Larson said less than half of COVID-19 patients on ECMO survive.

Plus, there was the issue of Bunch's pregnancy. Larson said patients on ECMO nearly always undergo emergency deliveries.

"There is bleeding complications. There's thrombotic, or blood clot complications. So we were doing the very best we could in this very rare and unique situation," she said.

Larson said during the hour that it took to do the procedure, the room was tense, filled with emotion. A maternal fetal medicine team monitored Bunch’s baby the whole time, ready to deliver if necessary. But it wasn’t. And Bunch made it through.

"I remember waking up and I was on Zoom with my family. They were waving me smiling and, you know, talking to me, and I just thought I was in a dream," Bunch said.

Credit Courtesy of Aquarius Bunch
Courtesy of Aquarius Bunch
Aquarius Bunch (right) is pictured with her son, Taiwan Jr., and her son's father, Taiwan. Bunch got COVID-19 when she was six months pregnant and had to be airlifted to Iowa City.

Bunch and her lungs improved rapidly. So much so that a little over a week later, she was taken off of ECMO. The next day her ventilator was removed.

And just two weeks after Bunch arrived in Iowa City by air ambulance, she was sent home to Waterloo to her mother and her 3-year-old son.

"It was actually on Mother's Day I got to come home so that was great. That was amazing. That worked out well," she said.

Bunch said in the whirlwind of what had happened, she never got to talk to Larson while in the ICU. She met her at a check up appointment after leaving the hospital. 

"I felt very emotional because, you know, she saved my life. Like I was so glad to be able to see her and express my feelings and emotions about how I felt," she said.

And Larson said Bunch has been a source of inspiration during what she calls a “dark and disturbing” few months at UIHC battling COVID-19.

"Maybe things will never be normal again in the hospital," Larson said. "But it just felt so good that ...we conquered this virus, that Aquarius conquered this virus, that has taken out so many of our friends and family and loved ones and colleagues."

Bunch is now at resting a her home in Waterloo. Her baby girl is due in August.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter