Calling Tionna Hairston a survivor may be one of the great understatements of 2020.
On Tuesday, Hairston left Novant Health Inc.'s inpatient rehabilitation hospital in Winston-Salem as a smiling, walking (with assistance) miracle.
Hairston, an Eden resident who turned 26 years old in June, made it through a lifetime of life-threatening conditions during her 137 days of medical care.
The amount of trauma flooded over Hairston's mother, Stacy Peatross, as she tried to recall them all Tuesday.
Hairston has overcome a COVID-19 infection that contributed to a stroke, which caused bleeding on her brain, led to blood clots in her heart and left her arms and legs essentially useless for months.
She required the use of a ventilator for more than two months, along with a trach tube and collar.
While being treated in the Forsyth Medical Center intensive-care unit, Hairston experienced a cardiac arrest with her heart repeatedly stopping and briefly restarting over a period of about 30 minutes.
After being successfully revived, she began to experience kidney and liver failure.
All of which had Forsyth doctors preparing Hairston's family for her death on multiple occasions.
Yet, Hairston is back in her home welcoming family and friends because of what her mother called an "indomitable fighting spirit and a strong faith in God."
"Today, watching her stand up out of that wheelchair just brought back so much hope, so much joy and just proof that if you push hard enough, you can achieve anything."
Dr. James McLean, director of the Novant rehabilitation hospital in Winston-Salem, said "just pick an adjective to describe Tionna's recovery — incredible, miraculous, just amazing — to consider all she's been through and where she is now."
"She had every system in her body collapsed, everything shut down, and she's got most everything back."
Peatross said she and her daughter were diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-May, with the mother becoming sick initially and the daughter being the caregiver.
The only initial sign that Hairston had the coronavirus was the loss of taste and smell.
However, in early June, Hairston began to become very symptomatic with weakness that devolved into being extremely lethargic, with nausea, no appetite and significantly bad headaches.
One of the headaches, behind her right eye, likely was coming from having a stroke. The symptoms progressed to where she couldn't use her arms and struggled to walk.
"I didn't pick up on it at the time because I thought she was just weak from the virus," Peatross said.
"But, there came a point when I recognized the sign of a stroke where her eyes were going opposite of each other."
Once at Forsyth Medical Center, she went into cardiac arrest on June 7, which her mother tearfully described as a "horrific experience, the worst 30 minutes of my life," as doctors fought to save Hairston's life.
"The CT scan showed the one side of her brain not damaged by the stroke was damaged by her coding and the CPR process," Peatross said. "Her brain stem was damaged.
"The doctors told us her brain damage was so severe that she had a couple of days at the most. If she did make it past two days, she would be a vegetable.
McLean said that surviving such a long cardiac arrest "is not something that happens very often."
"She had a heart rhythm that normally you can't survive. They were immediately able to start chest compression, they shocked her to get a pulse and blood pressure going again, and oxygen into her system, but that's on the very long end of a code."
'Chain of prayer'
Peatross said that following the cardiac arrest episode and the failing of her kidneys and liver, "there were several family meetings to discuss what would be best for her, whether to take her off the ventilator and let her go to heaven peacefully," Peatross said.
Peatross, being a nurse, said she knew what slim odds her daughter faced.
Yet, her family believed in their daughter's will to live. They chose to keep her on life support to make it through those next two days and hopefully beyond.
"I could not give up hope, and her faith kept driving me and pushing me," Peatross said. "Her father, and family and church family, helped me to make decisions that would have been next to impossible to make on my own."
"I would go in and place my hands on her stomach and pray, on her head and pray. We had Scripture readings in the room, music playing every day.
"We were surrounded by a chain of prayer going up for her."
Understanding her strength
Peatross credits the medical staff at Forsyth Medical Center for actively engaging her and Hairston's father "in understanding our daughter's strength" in her recovery.
"She went from not being able to recognize us, not being able to smile, to being able to make a little bit of progress as she could," Peatross said in describing July and much of August.
Peatross said her daughter's recovery commenced when she began to regain functionality in her kidneys and liver in July. That enabled her to leave the intensive-care unit.
A little twitch in her feet and legs followed. She began to smile slightly, even though "we were told it was just her facial muscles involuntarily moving," Peatross said.
"In our eyes, seeing little things were the signs we used to say she was getting better, and we're on the up and up."
Peatross said her daughter's recovery improved when she moved to a regular patient room.
"She received such compassionate care, not that the ICU staff wasn't, that it made a huge difference," Peatross said.
"The medical staff believed she could continue to improve in every small way that she could. They were all gung-ho with rehabilitation treatments because they could tell we knew our daughter."
Peatross said the biggest step was being able to get off the ventilator to allow her to be able to swallow and eat on her own.
"We really didn't give her a lot of options," her mother said. "We told her if you want to go home, you've got to breathe, you've got to fight. And she listened and she responded."
Watching her recover
Hairston still has limited use of her arms and can only walk with a walker as she attempts to overcome muscular atrophy. She has some memory loss for which she is still in therapy.
Yet, Peatross said watching her daughter persevere so far through all the illnesses, trauma and fears has brought "pure faith and pure joy" to her and her family.
McLean said for Hairston to come through all of her trauma "with the cognitive recognition that she is displaying now is simply amazing."
McLean said that given what Hairston has done so far in her recovery, "I don't know if there is a limit."
"We know from watching people recover from stroke is that they tend to have their most progress within three months to a year.
"She's more than three months out now and continues to improve. The fact that she was 25 when all this happened helps with her prognosis in terms of parts of her brain picking up the slack from other parts that were damaged."
McLean said Hairston has improved from being totally dependent on care when she arrived at the rehabilitation hospital on Sept. 11 to now she requires about 25% assistance with her mobility.
"Her challenges are continuing to recover neurologically, including her speaking, and her strength and mobility.
"I told her she hasn't lost anything that can't be found."
McLean said there are two takeaways for Novant medical staff and the general public from Hairston's trauma and recovery.
"First, it's that 20-somethings can get very sick from COVID and COVID complications," McLean said. "It's not just older folks.
"Tionna demonstrated that human spirit, that little flame inside that keeps us going, shows us that people can overcome things that we could never imagine."
Peatross said there is "no doubt in my mind, given what she has overcome, that she will be able to advance to living a normal, functional independent life again."
"Just watching her smiling through it all, watching her not be defeated by all of it, that I'm going to be OK, mommy.
"Those are the things that brought us through all of this."
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