A Carol Stream father's struggle to survive as COVID-19 sweeps through his family
The medical team also caring for his wife and son was running out of options to save his life.
While ventilators kept his closest loved ones alive, the machine wasn't enough to help Chuck Drungelo, a 54-year-old father and loyal White Sox fan, survive a ferocious case of COVID-19.
His doctors turned to a last-resort therapy: placing large tubes in his veins and connecting Drungelo to a heart-lung bypass machine. His blood funneled from his body to an artificial lung that removed carbon dioxide and infused oxygen before the machine pumped it back.
"It's really a last line of defense between life and death in some of these patients," said Dr. Jeffrey Huml, a critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.
The process known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, carries significant risks. Doctors use it on the sickest coronavirus patients to give their lungs, inflamed and damaged by their infections, time to heal.
Globally, more than 1,800 coronavirus patients have been placed on ECMO, according to a registry by Extracorporeal Life Support Organization, a nonprofit consortium of health care institutions.
At Central DuPage Hospital, all four patients who have received ECMO support over the course of the pandemic are now out of the intensive care unit.
Drungelo's lungs were stiff and his blood oxygen levels falling when doctors tried ECMO. They went to extraordinary lengths to help him beat the virus, and in the process, kept a Carol Stream family -- all COVID-19 survivors -- intact.
The family's toll
COVID-19 spared no one in the household of four.
Drungelo's mother-in-law, Barbara Elkins, was the first to end up in the hospital, followed by his son, Jordan, 25, and then Drungelo himself, on April 20.
His wife, Diane, a sign language interpreter at Park View Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, had to call an ambulance for herself.
"That morning, I could barely move," she said. "I could barely get myself down the stairs."
As Diane Drungelo's condition increasingly worsened, she had to put other relatives in charge of her son's and husband's care. Her 81-year-old mother was the only one in the family who didn't need a ventilator.
"I've always been the caretaker in the family, and it was probably one of the most difficult things I had ever been through, knowing that I couldn't be there for them," she said.
Diane Drungelo, 53, was laying in a hospital bed next to her husband's room in the intensive care unit. Their son was two doors down. Both men in the family have asthma, making them more vulnerable to severe complications from the virus.
But doctors considered the family patriarch the most critically ill patient at Central DuPage. Chuck Drungelo had multiple organ systems failing at the same time, and his chances of surviving were slim.
"His statistical mortality in the ICU at one point in time probably would have been in excess of 90%," Huml said.
Putting Drungelo in the prone position, or turning him onto his stomach, also didn't help his oxygenation.
One of Huml's colleagues suggested ECMO, a technology available at 264 U.S. hospitals, according to the global registry.
"I said the data with ECMO in COVID patients is not really all that good, but we really had no choice," Huml said.
Unaware of the toll on his wife and son, Chuck Drungelo remained heavily sedated and required paralytic drugs to keep him still while ECMO diverted blood outside his body. He also needed blood thinners to prevent clotting. The process poses risks for bleeding, stroke and infection.
"There was an immediate response in terms of his blood oxygen level, but we still needed time to allow his lungs to heal," Huml said. "And the best way to do that is to basically minimally ventilate the lungs and allow the technology to do all the work. And so that allows the inflammation in the lungs to decrease, the fibrosis to not develop."
After Diane Drungelo had improved enough to have her breathing tube removed, she asked Huml to tell her husband of 26 years she sent her love.
"'Hey Chuck, you know your wife says that she loves ya,'" Huml told him. "And I don't know whether he heard me or not. But I think that one of the things that kept this family going is that the father just kept saying over and over again in his mind, 'I have to survive for my son and my family.'"
Katie Reimer, his ICU nurse, tried to be a positive presence. A fellow Sox fan, Reimer told Drungelo he had to get out of the hospital so they could go to a game together.
"We were all rooting for him," she said. "That's devastating. The whole family? My God, it makes me cry now."
During video calls, his nurses showed his wife the complexities of the ECMO machine.
"I was just so glad that Central DuPage had one because otherwise he would not be here," Diane Drungelo said. "There's no doubt in my mind."
Chuck Drungelo doesn't remember being so close to death. But he does recall praying that he would leave the hospital alive for the sake of his son and his wife.
"I didn't ask for myself. I asked for them," Drungelo said, gathering his composure.
He spent 19 days on ECMO, then went to RML Specialty Hospital in Hinsdale, where he was weaned off the ventilator, and finally Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton for physical and occupational therapy.
He impressed his therapists with his progress, reaching his goal of moving on his own without the assistance of a walker.
"I'm stubborn. I'm a fighter," Drungelo said.
After a 72-day ordeal, he finally left Marianjoy at the start of month. Greeting him were the embraces of his wife and son and the cheers of his ICU nurses.
"It was a wonderful shot in the arm, and it was vindication for all of our hard work," Huml said. "And it was vindication for the entire team to see this whole family survive."
Drungelo is feeling more and more like his normal self. But it's still too soon to return to work for a physically demanding job as a foreman at a South Elgin plastics company. So his family has set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to help with expenses not covered by their health insurance.
"I know I couldn't handle eight and a half hours on my feet all day, so I've got a ways to go, but I keep pushing," said Drungelo, who lost about 40 pounds.
His lingering symptoms illustrate how COVID-19 patients face an unclear path to recovery.
"I know I have an elevated heart rate just even at rest, and that's a side effect of COVID," Drungelo said.
He's not sure how he contracted the virus. He said he was the first person to develop it at his workplace, an essential business. He suspects he may have picked it up when he wasn't wearing a mask running errands at stores. Illinois wouldn't order a mask requirement until May.
As the state recorded 1,195 new cases Saturday, Drungelo urged vigilance.
"We owe it to each other," he said. "We need to get past this."