NEW HYDE PARK, N.Y. — After a year of recovering, physical therapy and determination, a Queens Village teen was reunited with the doctor that made the decision that might very well have saved her life.
Karla Duarte, 17, arrived at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park Monday walking on her own and carrying flowers for Dr. James Schneider, the director of pediatric critical care who made the critical choice during her COVID-19 battle.
“Dear Dr. Schneider,” a card on the bouquet read in the teen’s handwriting. “There will never be enough words or actions to express my gratitude.”
Exactly a year ago, on April 19, 2020, Duarte was pushed in a wheelchair through the hospital halls, as nurses sang and clapped during a joyful release, following a three week battle with COVID-19 that nearly killed her.
She needed a walker just to get from her family car into her Queens Village house. For weeks, she suffered extreme fatigue, hair loss, and tingling in her left foot.
But that was behind her Monday, as she presented the flowers to Dr. Schneider.
“Wow, thank you!” the doctor exclaimed, as he accepted the bouquet. “I want to hug you, but I’m not sure if I can.”
A group of doctors and nurses who were essential to Duarte’s survival surrounded her during a brief, masked reunion in the parking lot of Cohen hospital, where Duarte’s mother, Ana Tejada, had also brought them coffee and bagels.
On April 4, 2020, Schneider and his team — which included Dr. Todd Sweberg, the medical director of the Intensive Care Unit — concluded that Karla Duarte would die on a ventilator if they didn’t try one more, last-ditch treatment: a hear-lung bypass machine known as an ECMO.
“It is a machine that drains blood from the body,” Schneider explained, “and puts it through an artificial lung.”
The ECMO cleans carbon dioxide from the patient’s blood and infuses the blood with fresh oxygen — but it’s not without risk.
“People with COVID have clotting issues,” Schneider said. “She had clotting issues, but she made it through, thankfully.”
Nurse Brittany Logan was present the day the teen was put on the ECMO and tried to comfort Duarte’s mother, who remained with her daughter in isolation throughout the hospital stay.
“It’s a very large machine,” Logan said. “And it’s scary. It’s scary to people who even work in the hospital.”
It’s believed Duarte was the first teen COVID patient to be treated with an ECMO machine in the United States.
“It’s now become a lot more common for COVID patients,” Sweberg, Schneider’s associate, told reporters.
After Duarte was released last year, she started twice a week physical therapy sessions to regain her stamina. Her sense of taste and smell came back. The tingling in her left foot stopped and her hair grew back in bald spots that had developed.
“I’m back to 100%,” Karla Duarte told PIX11.
An MRI last summer showed no scarring to her heart. The teen was riding her bicycle again by last July.
“And look at her now!” Dr. Schneider said, as he threw his arm around the teen’s shoulder.
All of the medical personnel and Duarte were wearing surgical masks during the reunion, and Duarte and her mother are each fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We are so thankful, there are no words,” Tejada said. “They are my heroes,” she added, referring to the assembled doctors and nurses.
Duarte will graduate from high school this year, after doing remote classes since last September.
She told PIX11 her ordeal has her considering a career as a respiratory therapist.
The New York Mets recently featured a video on Opening Day that showed the teen and Schneider tossing a ball around at Citi Field. The family of Steve Cohen, owner of the Mets, founded Cohen Children’s Medical Center.
And while Duarte is relishing her recovery, she wants young people to learn from her COVID experience.
“My message would be: Take it serious. It can affect anybody. Wear your mask, wash your hands,” Duarte said. “It’s not over yet.”