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Cancer survivor shares emotional reunion with BAMC ECMO team

By Lori Newman | Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs | April 3, 2019


A cancer survivor recently had an emotional reunion with some of the members of an elite team of medical providers at Brooke Army Medical Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston and saw the machine that helped save her life.

Rita Ibanez, a military spouse, made a routine appointment to meet her new provider after her husband, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Scott Ibanez, was stationed at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston in 2015.

“When my husband PCS’s somewhere, I usually check in with the new doctors,” she said.

A routine blood test lead to more tests and the discovery that Ibanez had stomach cancer. She underwent surgery to remove her stomach.

Due to a complication, she had to be placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, a heart-lung bypass system that replaces the natural functions of the heart and lungs while treatments and natural healing of the affected organs take place.

Ibanez was on ECMO for 14 days.

“When I woke up, I actually thought it was the same day as my surgery,” Ibanez said. “I don’t remember going into distress or any of that.”

Ibanez reached out to BAMC via social media because she wanted the opportunity to thank the medical professionals who cared for her and to see the machine that helped save her life.

“I really wanted to extend my appreciation because everything happened so fast and I don’t even know who worked on me or who my team was,” she said.

On March 22, Ibanez, along with her family, had the opportunity to meet up with some of the members of the EMCO team, Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Matthew Read, acting ECMO medical director; Kathryn Negaard, Extracorporeal Cardiac Life Support program manager; Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Thomas Lee; Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Jeffrey Dellavolpe; and registered nurse Roxann Naud.

After an emotional reunion with a multitude of hugs all around, Read showed them how the heart-lung bypass system circulates blood through an external artificial lung before sending it back into the patient's bloodstream.

“We put a lot of time and hours, and our hearts and souls into this mission,” Read said. “It’s emotionally draining at times, but moments like this is what brings joy to us. It’s so timely that you are here.

“You’re part of our family from the moment we started taking care of you,” Read told Ibanez tearfully. “I wasn’t even here then, but you are part of my family now, because you survived this.”

“There are not words that can ever describe the bond we have with our patients,” Lee added. “This means so much to us.”

The adult ECMO mission began at BAMC in 2012. Today, a designated team of Army, Air Force and Navy physicians, nurses, technicians and program managers is able to provide round-the-clock care to four patients simultaneously. BAMC has the only ECMO center in the Department of Defense and remains one of the few centers with global air transportable ECMO capability.

While taking care of military beneficiaries is their primary mission, Read explained, the team also is proud to support patients from the civilian population. This ensures they are ready to go to places as far away as Japan, South Korea, Germany, Afghanistan and Iraq to transport patients back to BAMC when needed.

In 2017, BAMC's adult ECMO program received the Award for Excellence in Life Support from the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization. The recognition designates BAMC as a National ECMO Center of Excellence. 

Today Ibanez is adjusting to a new normal, but she admits she is still dealing with the emotional trauma of it all. She said she couldn’t have done it without the support of her family and the staff at BAMC.

 “The care she got from day one was incredible,” said Ibanez’ mother, Rachel Martinez. “The staff is amazing. They kept me informed about everything they were doing and how they were doing it.

“They are angels, because they did everything they could to save her life and they did,” Martinez said.

Ibanez agrees.

“The team here at BAMC are angels,” Ibanez said. “They go above and beyond. I cannot say enough good things about this hospital. I love it. I’m here for my family and that’s all that matters.”

To watch the video of this reunion, visit https://youtu.be/3_L7LWQiy-o.