Watching Rory Smith meet some of the medical team for the first time since they helped save his life at the Bairnsdale Hospital, it was interesting to observe the reactions.
“I went for a run the other day,” Rory told them.
“But I’m not pushing myself too hard.”
The amazement on the health professionals’ faces was unmistakable. It clearly wasn’t something they expected from someone who had been so ill.
It’s been a long six months for Rory and his family, since he first presented at Bairnsdale Regional Health Service (BRHS) on May 8.
His girlfriend, Lilli, took him on the last ferry from their home in Raymond Island to hospital after he woke up in a sweat and had suffered joint pain for a month.
Little did he know his lungs were actually filling with blood and he would spend the next two and a half weeks, including his 23rd birthday, in a coma on life support. “I’m very grateful,” Rory said simply.
“If you look at the odds I probably shouldn’t be here.”
In Bairnsdale, the whole scenario was complicated by the threat of COVID-19 and Rory was kept in isolation, added to that, no one could work out what was wrong.
“It was a very big night,” Dr Charmaine Hammond said.
“The fact he’s still here to tell the story is even better.
“He became really sick, really quickly.
“We think it was only because he was so healthy that he lived. He had a good heart.
“His oxygen levels weren’t good so we put him on a ventilator.”
Not that he remembers but Rory was taken to Melbourne by road after the
Adult Retrieval Victoria team, a branch of Ambulance Victoria, arrived via plane, bringing an oxygenator called ECMO (Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which took three hours to set up and connect.
Meanwhile, Rory was breathing at just five to 10 per cent of his lung function.
He was transported to The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, where he remained on life support for two and half weeks, in ICU for a month and spent another 20 days in the ward.
Rory was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Wegener’s, in which the body’s own immune system attacks the blood vessels.
In Rory’s case, it caused severe haemorrhaging in his lungs.
Testament to true grit and courage, Rory has overcome learning to eat and walk again and says learning to talk was one of the hardest parts of his recovery.
Possibly his positive attitude has something to do with that.
The doctors and nurses showed admiration of his ability to get through what was a dire situation.
“You just knew Rory was special that day,” said one of the nurses, two of which had attended the meeting on their day off.
“He’s a lovely person and we wish him all the best for the future.”
His doctor, Dr Phil Sewell, said Rory’s case was “scary and stressful” but that Rory didn’t complain going through it.
The local hospital staff members, who were commended on their effort by the staff at The Alfred, said looking after Rory was a real team effort that included about 20 people from doctors and nurses to orderlies and porters.
Wegener’s is not curable but is manageable.
Rory said he had gained 39 kilograms due to the steroids he has to take and must have six- monthly Rituximab infusions, a biological immune suppressant, which he hopes will take place at Bairnsdale rather than Melbourne in the near future.
“My family have been so good to me and Lilli has been my rock,” Rory said.
“It’s not just the care I received here it’s been the follow up as well.”
In October, the Bairnsdale CFA volunteer and casual ambulance officer, went back to work as a plumber with Megals, and has also volunteered to be a consumer representative on the BRHS’s board of quality and safety.
“It feels good to be helpful,” he said.
Dubbed the ‘sickest man in the country’ in May, 2020, Rory Smith recently returned to the Bairnsdale Regional Health Service to thank some of the team who helped save his life. Rory, centre, is pictured with educator Liz Barlow, Dr Phil Sewell, registered nurses Lisa Dorsett and Louise Prince and Dr Charmaine Hammond. K457-3696