When COVID-19 kills: Rare lung syndrome like ‘drowning on dry land’

For Eileen Rubin, the nightmare started with a lower backache.

"I went to the doctor, she did an exam and said, 'I found nothing. There's nothing wrong with you. You must have pulled a muscle.' "

Rubin, then 33, knew she hadn’t pulled a muscle.

“About five days later, it’s moving into my lungs and upper back,” she said.

Within 24 hours, Rubin was in an ICU bed -- diagnosed with septic shock.

“The following day I went into respiratory arrest,” Rubin said. “The last words I said to my mother before I was put on the ventilator were ‘I can’t breathe. I think I’m dying.’”

And thus began Rubin’s life-and-death struggle with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or ARDS. A fast-moving condition that one study suggests could affect close to 300,000 Americans each year. ARDS kills about 40 percent of its victims.

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ARDS is also the most severe complication associated with COVID-19 infections. The virus triggers the body’s immune system to protect cells in the lung that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. Inflammation and injury result -- and fluid pours in. That’s why ARDS is sometimes likened to “drowning on dry land.”

There is no specific treatment for ARDS -- so patients are often put into a medically induced coma and placed on a mechanical ventilator. The hope is that over time, the lungs will recover.

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Eileen Rubin remained on a ventilator for eight weeks and, at one point, doctors recommended to her family that they let her go. “My family said no, do everything that you can.”

Today, Rubin is president and co-founder of the ARDS Foundation. She says ARDS survivors are especially leery of COVID-19: “People are terrified. Because anyone who is an ARDS survivor is just, naturally, the idea that someone might come at you and have to intubate you once again after you’ve gone through what you’ve gone through is just horrifying.”

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