Ricky Hamm, a 50-year-old Medevac helicopter pilot, used a walker to walk through the sliding doors Friday afternoon toward his parked car outside UAB Hospital. A nephew had a welcome sign and police motorcycles were waiting with flashing lights to escort him home. Hamm stopped short to answer questions from journalists.
“Right now it’s still surreal,” said Hamm, who first fell ill in January. “It has been a long journey. I guess I have not really understood that it is nearing the end. But it’s slowly starting to give me butterflies. ”
Family members and first responders cheered when Hamm was discharged on Friday. His total stay of 187 days is the longest for any COVID patient treated at UAB.
Hamm’s journey was not only long, but it was also unusually crowded. He spent almost five months on life support, connected to an ECMO machine – which stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. The machine takes a patient’s blood, filters carbon dioxide, adds oxygen and pumps it in again so that the heart and lungs rest.
Patients at ECMO have surgical tubes inserted into veins and arteries and must be closely monitored for infections and organ failure.
“ECMO is a complicated, complex procedure,” said Dr. Keith Wille, Medical Director of the ECMO Program for Adults at UAB. “It is invasive and not very fun for the patient. In this case, it saved his life. But trust me; you do not want to go to ECMO. ”
Not only did Hamm spend more than six months in the hospital, he spent a total of 147 days at ECMO – far longer than average.
Hamm left the hospital with an oxygen tank and hearing aids. He suffered hearing loss during his fight with COVID, but was able to answer questions using a listening device and his wife, Shannon Hamm. She said her husband spent months close to death before finally turning the corner.
“He had a lot of support from family and friends,” Shannon Hamm said. “We were not sure how it was going to go first. He was basically out of it for about four months. When he woke up and joined the fight, things got a lot better. Then we knew he would make it. ”
Hamm worked as a medevac helicopter pilot for 17 years and transported many sick and injured people to UAB over the years. He and several colleagues became ill with COVID in January, just after receiving the first dose of the vaccine. Hamm felt his first symptoms on January 5th and went into the hospital on January 10th.
“When it first started, we just thought we would be here a few weeks and it wouldn’t last that long,” Shannon Hamm. “But it turned out to be a long ordeal.”
Hamm said he thought he was already infected with the virus when he received the shot, and urged people in Alabama to do everything they could to avoid getting COVID, including getting the vaccine. Alabama has the lowest COVID vaccination rate in the country.
“I believe in the vaccine,” he said. “I think I already had the virus before I got the vaccine before it could protect me. I do not want anyone to review what I have reviewed. ”
Hamm and his wife said he was fortunate to be treated at UAB, where he had access to ECMO and other advanced treatments. His supporters wore matching jerseys to celebrate his 51st birthday the day after his discharge. They broke out in applause as he got into the car and drove home.
“He has a family now,” Shannon Hamm said of the UAB staff.
In addition to his birthday, Hamm said he was looking forward to enjoying his new home, which was under construction when he entered the hospital.
“We built it to live the rest of our lives,” he said. “Built ramps and wide doorways. No stairs. That was when we got old. I never expected that I would soon need disability access. ”