UF Vascular Surgery Fellow’s road to recovery following flu, ECMO

When Chris Jacobs came down with the flu, he was running 30 miles per week, plus strength training.

Chris Jacobs embraces his son along a row of his colleagues and health care team.
Chris Jacobs, MD, embraces his son during his Walk of Honor.

The 31-year-old UF Department of Surgery Vascular Surgery Fellow didn’t expect to need an ER visit — let alone an ICU bed, or a last-ditch ECMO cannulation, all within hours of arriving at UF Health Shands Hospital. And, frankly, neither did anyone else.

“We all got the flu,” his wife recalled. “But one morning, he was barely responsive. We rushed to the ER and I called Pat immediately.”

Patrick “Pat” Underwood was a friend of the family’s, and trained with Chris while they were surgery residents at UF. Now a chief resident, Underwood called ahead to the ER, and by the time Chris arrived, they’d cleared a trauma bay resuscitation bed for him.

His oxygen saturation was dangerously low — and he was intubated shortly after arriving through the ER’s doors.

“Pat and I were interns together, so we kind of grew up together,” Chris said. “We’ve been friends since day one. He’s always been someone my family and I can count on.”

In between the demanding workload of a vascular surgery fellowship, many of Chris’s colleagues had turned into friends. As word of his condition spread, more of them became worried. Influenza turned streptococcal pneumonia was serious.

“His condition was rapidly deteriorating,” said Abbas Shahmohammadi, MD, director of abdominal critical care. “In fact, after we intubated him, his heart stopped.”

After coding, Jacobs’ health care team quickly put him on ECMO, a mechanical system that would filter his blood for him – at a cost. ECMO historically required the patient to be intubated, sedated, and essentially paralyzed.

Chris Jacobs and family“His heart was under a large stress,” said Shahmohammadi, whose expertise in respiratory failure and ECMO have been honed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Both of his heart chambers were failing. There was extensive pneumonia in the lungs, and we were managing a secondary bacterial infection in the lung, impacting that organ as well as filtering into the bloodstream.”

Chris Jacobs had, by every account, been the picture of health prior to his bout with the flu. This, along with his young age, worked in his favor to help his team combat the multiorgan failure the surgeon was experiencing.

“He had acute heart failure, mild kidney dysfunction and his white blood cell count was less than one,” Shahmohammadi said. “He was a friend to all of us, so the pressure was on to manage his case in a way that would help him recover, and recover quickly.”

Every medical decision Shahmohammadi and his team made was carefully deliberated.

“I practically slept in the hospital,” he recalled. “It’s rare, but not uncommon, for the flu to progress to a disease state of this level.”

Within a few days, his team’s caution paid off, and Chris’s infection cleared. On day five, he was able to sit up. Then, with the help of the physical and respiratory therapists, nurses and ECMO specialists, he was able to ambulate while cannulated for ECMO.

Chris Jacobs ambulating on ECMO.

“As a surgeon, I’ve worked with nurses and patients before,” Jacobs said. “But being on the other side of this, being dependent on my nurses and physical therapists, was humbling. It gave me a fuller perspective on the care we provide, and I’m grateful to the entire hospital for saving my life.”

“I have incredible colleagues, peers, friends, and family at home,” Jacobs said. “I’m lucky to be alive and that I get to spend more time with them.”

Now, three weeks later after his discharge, Chris is walking and jogging 30 miles a week and working out daily, slowly regaining his stamina and working back up to his previous levels of health. He looks forward to running again, soon — and has returned to his fellowship at UF Health, performing surgeries and working alongside those very physicians that saved his life.

Unit 87 and team