Young woman's life and death struggle inspires doctors to help others

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A local medical center has new equipment and a new team to help save more lives OUTSIDE the hospital.

And it's all thanks to the family of a college student they saved.

We're fortunate to have dozens of top-notch hospitals with advanced technology in our area.

But what happens when people who need help aren't at the hospital yet?

One local family saw the need for new, portable equipment, so they helped make it happen.

2 years ago, Victoria Palko was fighting for her life against a rare pneumonia.

She first got sick while studying for finals at the University of Delaware.

At the college health center, she was diagnosed with pneumonia, and given antibiotics.

But days later, back home in Moorestown, New Jersey, her mother says it reached a crisis.

"I couldn't wake her up, so her lungs had collapsed," Laurie Palko recalls, still with a slight tone of concern.

Victoria desperately needed high-tech breathing support called ECMO, or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation.

The machine was located in Philadelphia, but she was too sick to transport, and the equipment was too bulky to move.

ECMO puts oxygen *into the blood and takes out carbon dioxide when the lungs can't do it on their own.

"So that when a patient has an infection, it buys you time to treat the infection," says Dr. Jack Gutsche, co-medical director of the Penn Lung Rescue team.

Victoria finally stabilized just long enough to be flown to Penn Presbyterian, and put on ECMO.

She was on the life-saving device for 20 days, and in the hospital for 2 months.

She missed Christmas, her birthday, and a semester of college.

During that time, Victoria's doctors became convinced a portable ECMO could save many lives.

"Her case really cemented how important a goal this was," says Dr. Bill Vernick, who is also a co-medical director of the Lung Rescue unit.

So the Palko family helped them raise money to create the new 'lung rescue team,' headed by Drs. Gutsche and Vernick, and to buy a smaller, portable ECMO.

"It literally fits on the stretcher between a patient's legs," says Dr. Gutsche.

Victoria is healthy again, but it was an uphill battle.

"I not only had to learn how to walk again, but how to be vertical, because I was in a bed for 2 months," Victoria notes.

"It's crazy how far I've come because of everything everyone has done for me," she adds.

And since they've had the mobile ECMO, the doctors say they have helped 20 other patients, all with good outcomes.

Victoria's family also gives back with blood drives. She needed about 100 units of blood products during her long ordeal.

The next one is this Saturday, January 23rd, in Moorestown, New Jersey.

It will be from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM, at the Evergreens Retirement Community, at 309 Bridgeboro Road.

For an appointment, call Lori at 609-273-4217.
Copyright © 2019 WPVI-TV. All Rights Reserved.