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Near-death comeback gives man new lease on life

Washington man turns life around following OHSU hospitalization
four people, gathered around a cell phone and smiling
(Left to right) Registered nurses Heather Mayes and Ellie Toole, look over photos with Jesus Esparza and his wife Cynthia during a recent visit to the OHSU Medical Intensive Care Unit. Mayes and Toole cared for Esparza when he was in intensive care in 2016. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

After a nasty strain of the flu almost killed him in 2016, Jesus Esparza is taking full advantage of his second chance at life.

He quit drinking and lost 170 pounds. Esparza married his partner of now 13 years, Cynthia, in 2018. They bought a house together. Most importantly, he is living life with enthusiasm and appreciation.

“What I saw when I was unconscious in the hospital changed my life,” said Esparza, 33, of Kennewick, Washington, who had a handful of criminal convictions in his teens and 20s.

“I saw my old ways. I needed to fix my relationships with others. I had to change myself and the way I acted. I’m on the other side of death, basically, and I get to see what real life is about.”

Esparza was kept alive during much of his 23-day hospital stay with the help of advanced medical equipment that oxygenated his blood. OHSU’s Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation equipment, or ECMO, filled in for his lungs which had failed due to severe acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Jesus and Dr. Nonas hugging
Jesus Esparza hugs Dr. Stephanie Nonas. While Esparza was hospitalized with complications from the flu, he was kept alive with the help of equipment that oxygenated his blood, called ECMO. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

“He likely would have died without ECMO,” said Stephanie Nonas, M.D., associate professor of medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine and associate director of OHSU’s ECMO program. “He was in really bad shape when he came to the hospital, but ended up going home with just a cane. That’s very impressive and rare.”

Esparza recently visited OHSU’s Medical Intensive Care Unit, three years after his discharge on April 8, 2016. He walked the halls in awe, recalled humbling snippets of his lengthy hospital stay, and sincerely thanked the staff who helped him.

Staff eagerly gathered around Esparza, happy to see him standing on his own two feet in the ICU, where he had previously been bed-bound.

Crystal Pelgorsch, R.N. (2019)
Crystal Pelgorsch, R.N.

“I thank God every day that you saved me,” Esparza told staff. Among those gathered was Crystal Pelgorsch, R.N.

“I can only think of three or four patients who have come back to the ICU after being discharged from the hospital,” Pelgorsch said. “It’s a big deal when we get to celebrate success stories like these. This is why we do what we do.”

Esparza’s journey back to health wasn’t quick or immediate. After being discharged, he discovered severe back pain that left him unable to work. Physical therapy, cortisone shots and weight loss gradually made the pain bearable enough to walk. 

He didn’t quit drinking right away, but another scare with congestive heart failure led him to give up the bottle about 1.5 years ago.

While visiting the ICU, Esparza had the opportunity to speak with a patient who was on ECMO at that moment. The conversation was private, but he hoped his recovery can help others.

“It can get better,” Esparza said. “It is possible. People do survive all that. It’s a long, hard road -the hardest thing I’ve ever done – but never give up hope.”

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