UK HealthCare

Former ECMO patient helps others heal, move forward 

Photo of Mark with ECMO device
Photo of Natasha Crain with Mark Meade
Photo of Natasha Crain
Photo of Mark's hand on an ECMO device

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 17, 2024)Mark Meade is fully aware of how fortunate he is. 

“I’m the luckiest man alive,” he said. “I tend to appreciate every morning when I wake up and my eyes open in bed and I get to enjoy one more day. Every day is a bonus at this point.” 

For years, Mark had been working trying to improve his heart health. He successfully improved his lipid profile — the measure of the amount of fat in the blood — through diet and exercise. But decades of high cholesterol had taken its toll. Despite making positive lifestyle changes, the damage to his heart had been done. Minutes into a routine cardiac stress test in the fall of 2018, Mark suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed on the treadmill. 

“I think I was clinically dead at that point,” he said.  

The ensuing hours and days are lost to Mark, retold to him by his wife, Jennifer. More than a dozen doctors, nurses and anesthetists worked to keep Mark alive for hours after his collapse. After surgically repairing his heart, Mark was put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).  

Similar to a heart-lung bypass machine, ECMO is a machine that bypasses the heart to pump blood outside of the body. Carbon dioxide is filtered from the blood before being circulated to an oxygenator. The oxygen-filled blood is rewarmed, and then pumped back into the body to be circulated to organs and tissues. By mechanically pumping and oxygenating the blood, the heart and lungs can rest and recover. 

Mark was on ECMO for six days, unconscious and oblivious to the world around him. He spent a total of 16 days in the hospital and has little recollection of that time, save for one traumatic memory. 

“They were trying to wean me off ECMO, and in doing so had started to cut back on my sedation,” Mark said. “I coded again two days after my initial event and had to be defibrillated. I remember at the time thinking, ‘I don’t know what that was, but I hope they don’t do that again. It was violent, but necessary to bring me back. I couldn’t see anything and honestly, I had no idea what was going on at the time, but I could hear the chaos.” 

Much of Mark’s recovery process focused on physical strength and well-being. He dutifully wore a life vest that monitored his heart and would defibrillate him if needed. The intubation damaged his esophagus, so he had to puree his food and supplements so he wouldn’t asphyxiate. There was physical therapy, occupational therapy, cardiac rehabilitation and a litany of testing and imaging. While Mark is grateful beyond words to the staff and providers of UK for giving him his life back, there was one part of his recovery with which no one could help. 

“The doctors and nurses were terrific, as were the therapists, but still something was missing,” he said. “It is that deeply personal, ‘I have been in your shoes and I understand what you and your family are going through’ that we didn’t have. My wife and I really wished we had someone to talk to who had shared some of my experiences and rehabilitation. Someone to inform us of what was to come and what to expect along the way.” 

Therein, Mark found his calling. A few months ago, Mark reconnected with Natasha Crain, operations manager of ECMO at UK HealthCare. They share a special connection — she was with Mark when he coded while coming off ECMO. 

“I did not leave his room,” Natasha said, thinking back to that fateful day in 2018. “I was one of those nurses who gets very caught up with what’s going on with my patient. I wanted to be right by his side.” 

Natasha recalls when Mark had to be shocked; his wife and daughters were in the room as well. Not wanting them to see Mark in pain, she told them to turn around and not watch. 

For Natasha, having the patients’ families' interests in mind is personal. When she was eight years old, her grandfather passed away from a massive heart attack, after living with heart failure for years. She promised him that one day she would be a nurse and take care of him.  

“Working with ECMO and taking care of patients like Mark who have a fighting chance because of what ECMO can do makes me feel like I’m doing something for my grandpa,” Natasha said. “I’m taking care of patients just like him who may not have had a chance if it hadn’t been for this device.” 

“It is not an understatement to say she is a big reason that I am alive today,” he said. “I didn’t know her then, but my wife and daughters did, and spoke glowingly of her. I developed a great appreciation for the care from her that saved my life. I am very thankful that she knew what she was doing. I now see that clinical competence first-hand while working with her, but I love that her communication with families is also so reassuring and calming.” 

In the cardiovascular intensive care unit, Natasha joined the team of ECMO specialists who are trained and educated to care for ECMO patients and the device. She then transitioned into the role of the ECMO operations manager. At UK HealthCare, Natasha and her team care for 115-130 ECMO patients a year. In 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, that number swelled to 154.

The aftermath of ECMO can be brutal, with a long and difficult recovery. For patients’ families, the experience can be even more traumatic. Recognizing a need for a program to help patients and their families navigate the complex ECMO experience, Natasha’s boss suggested she work with a former ECMO patient who had recently joined the peer support group, someone who knows what it’s like to recover from an experience as harrowing as ECMO. 

That patient was Mark Meade. 

“It was this full circle moment,” Natasha said. “We already have this connection and this passion for helping people. It was another divine intervention moment — the right things and the right people have been placed in my life for me to still find meaning in this job, despite not being at the bedside anymore.” 

Together, Natasha and Mark offer their services to current and recent ECMO patients. Part mentorship, part therapy, Mark shares his experience and offers fellow patients a glimpse of what life can be like after ECMO. No topic is off-limits, and no question goes unanswered. From discharge to six weeks, six months or a year after their cardiac event, Mark leads an open and honest discussion of what his fellow patients can expect. 

“I understand the recovery," he said. "I love sharing my experiences and talking about the many steps to recovery, and I can do so from a very personal perspective.” 

He’s not shy or timid to talk to these families,” Natasha said. “It usually prompts these big ‘Aha!’ moments for them, to know he was in this exact situation, and how he’s standing here, talking to me.” 

It’s not just patients and their families who benefit from seeing Mark’s incredible recovery journey. 

“The nurses who took care of Mark, they’ve seen him at his worst,” Natasha said. “And for them to see him walking the halls and being that beacon of hope and light for people I think is more gratifying for them than the patients he’s seeing.” 

Over the past few months, Mark and Natasha have met with eight patients, but none have affected Mark as indelibly as the first. As he was sharing his experience with the patient’s family, a spine-tingling feeling came over him. Natasha felt it too. 

“In the middle of the conversation, Natasha stopped me and said, ‘It just hit me this is the room you were in when you coded on me on that Sunday night five years ago.' That will give you a bit of a pause and was a great way to jump into the mentor program.” 

Two years ago, Mark and his wife retired and set off to see and experience everything the world has to offer. In the years since Mark’s incident, they have traveled with a group of friends to places like Italy and Portugal. Recently they embarked on a cruise with meals and cooking demonstrations led by Food Network chefs. For Valentine’s Day every year, he and Jennifer escape to the beaches of Mexico. A prolific writer, Mark has authored books on Kentucky tourism and bourbon distilleries, as well as one on his favorite international cuisine. He is keenly aware, more so than most people, that life should be lived to the fullest and every moment counts. 

“Life has been great,” Mark said. “If anything, I think life has returned to 'normal,' with a heavy dose of appreciating every day that I have enjoyed after recovery. We all know nothing is guaranteed in life, but I have a new focus on living every day with an appreciation for life and enjoying the company of all the people around me — my wife, our children, grandchildren, close friends and the special people I get to work with every day.” 

UK HealthCare is the hospitals and clinics of the University of Kentucky. But it is so much more. It is more than 10,000 dedicated health care professionals committed to providing advanced subspecialty care for the most critically injured and ill patients from the Commonwealth and beyond. It also is the home of the state’s only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that cares for the tiniest and sickest newborns, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center and Kentucky’s top hospital ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

As an academic research institution, we are continuously pursuing the next generation of cures, treatments, protocols and policies. Our discoveries have the potential to change what’s medically possible within our lifetimes. Our educators and thought leaders are transforming the health care landscape as our six health professions colleges teach the next generation of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals, spreading the highest standards of care. UK HealthCare is the power of advanced medicine committed to creating a healthier Kentucky, now and for generations to come.