COVID-19 survivor inspires others with courage

April 02, 2021

Her fight with COVID-19 is over, but the prayers and support continue.

Brianna Heitzman was living life on her own terms in 2020.  At 40 years old, she was working, living in an apartment she shared with her boyfriend Shaun, and enjoying time with her close-knit family and four Chihuahuas. She cleaned house on Saturdays and went to church and to dinner on Sundays. As with most Americans, the pandemic had required a few adjustments to her everyday life.

A certified employment specialist with Down Syndrome of Louisville (DSL), she found herself working from home most days instead of visiting her clients (many of whom had become friends) in her efforts to help them find and maintain employment. Because of the pandemic, the jobs available for her clients had become more scarce, and the nature of her work had changed as a result. Her boyfriend’s job had changed also, and Shaun was “back and forth” from work to home, mostly working second shift. They were seeing each other at odd times, passing each other coming and going.

But the pandemic would take a greater toll than just on her work. When she developed symptoms in October, she would dismiss it as a sinus infection, but things became worse.

Brianna knew when it was finally time to seek help. On Oct. 12, she found herself struggling to breathe and her lungs felt terrible. She went to the Emergency Department at Baptist Health Louisville, but not before her parents came and picked up Gracie, Cooper, Lilly, and Gizmo, the four little dogs that lit up her world. It was the last time she would see them - or her home for five months.

Normal measures were taken to treat Brianna. They put a BPAP device on her to ease her difficult breathing, but it was not enough, and she fought the oxygen, faintly recalling ripping tubes off her face in an effort to free herself. She did not remember being sedated and placed on a ventilator 11 days into her hospital stay. Her father told her that the following day, she was placed on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) and transferred to UK HealthCare in Lexington.

Sometime in December, before Christmas, she was awakened with the news that her legs would require amputation due to limb ischemia, a condition that occurs when there is reduced blood flow to the tissue – and a known potential side effect of ECMO and the high-powered medications she was taking, which were ironically the only alternative for saving her life. The doctors had warned her parents of the worst possible scenario, but there was little choice but to proceed.

When that scenario became a reality, it was more than she could process. “They woke me up to tell me they were going to take my legs. I remember my sister and mom really crying in the background.” Heitzman recalls that it was hard to be alone during this time. She remembers waking up and realizing that her legs were gone, and even her mother and father couldn’t be there with her to comfort her.

Heitzman returned from her journey from Lexington on Jan. 11 without her legs – and emotions. She admitted that she was numb. And there were more adjustments. After her return to Louisville, she underwent more surgery to remove four fingers that had also been affected by her treatment. It was all very difficult to accept or understand, but she would begin to slowly reconnect emotionally as she worked daily to learn to live again.

She learned to transfer herself in and out of her wheelchair to a bed the same height as the one at home. She learned to transfer to and from a shower chair and commode. She began doing recreational therapy. One game, called Sequence, she enjoyed so much that she bought it to play with her family on family game night, a night she shared with Shaun, her parents, her sister Aleigha, her aunt, uncles and cousins.

She had missed this family closeness during her struggles, but she FaceTimed with them, and they all kept in touch on Facebook. When they didn’t want to bother her, they kept in touch with her father for updates. “On Easter, they will see me. My mom and dad and sister also started a Facebook page called ‘Praying and Fighting for Brianna.’” Many of her family and friends cheered her with memes and cartoons featuring Winnie the Pooh, a character she had always loved.  

Her fight with COVID-19 is over, but the prayers and support continue – and so will Brianna’s life, with some changes. She is eager to return to work, a vocation to which she has always felt called. “I love people with Downs…I have known that I wanted to work with people with special needs since I was 12. I had two friends who I went to daycare with who had Downs and I just loved them.”

Brianna wasted no time trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She earned her bachelor’s degree in special education and her master's degree in teacher leadership with an endorsement in moderate to severe disabilities. She taught special education for six years in Spencer and Hardin counties before accepting her position at DSL. Clients and friends from DSL “were very worried about me, and they are on the Facebook page. My boss told them what was going on. One client FaceTimed me, and she was so excited that I was coming home.”

For the most part, Heitzman will pick up where she left off. She will return to her apartment, where Shaun and her parents will help with some of her daily activities. She will return to her family who she missed dearly, and she will return to her dogs, who she says are like her children. She FaceTimed with them too during her time in the hospital, but “They couldn’t see me, and it broke my heart whenever they are looking for me. They could hear me, but they just looked and looked...”

On Friday, March 26, Heitzman was able to put all those things behind her as she was wheeled out of the hospital’s sliding doors on a partially sunny spring day. The sidewalk was lined with family, friends, and many of her DSL family. Many of them wore shirts that said, “Brianna Strong,” in support of her victory over COVID-19. Her dogs came too. They were dressed for the occasion and placed in her lap to greet her before she greeted some of her human friends. Their tails whipped wildly, as the little dogs reached to kiss her face. They knew today was special, and their “mom” was coming home.

Heitzman also had a special visitor who was no stranger to Baptist or to COVID-19. Demetrius Booker, a former patient featured in a survivor discharge story from late 2020, had come to surprise her. Booker also endured a long hard-fought battle with COVID-19 that included ECMO. Heitzman’s family had found him on social media early during her illness and turned to him for comfort and encouragement. Booker, who is fully recovered, understood many of Heitzman’s struggles, and was happy to be a part of her celebration.

Those struggles have not brought Heitzman down. “I feel like this has changed me as a person. I didn’t know I had the tenacity in me to do the things I had done. Before, it took my mom and dad pushing me to do what I have done, but I did it on my own this time. I know I am strong enough to do things on my own now.”

She was also recognized by one of her physicians, William Dillon, MD, Baptist Health interventional cardiologist, who stated, "Brianna is an incredible young woman who has had a terribly long recovery from this virus.  Most people would have given up.  I am very happy she is going home after over 155 days in the hospital."

What is next for Heitzman? She plans to maintain her certification that she achieved for work before she became ill. She plans to walk, relying on the prosthetics she is learning to use. One is ready, and the other is still being made. “I want to be a better version, of me, and I think I am. I will do all the things I did before. I just may have to do them a little differently.”

As Heitzman has been inspired by the special people in her life, she hopes to do the same for others. She wants people to learn from her story, and to realize that COVID is real. “Just take precautions and do what is recommended to do – and if you do have to fight, just know that you CAN do it. You just might have to do it a little differently.”