16-year-old Kansas girl on life support still walks and eats tacos

A Kansas girl struck by a mysterious illness that left her unable to breathe without a machine is helping pave the way to recovery for people on life support.

Zei Uwadia texted her mother last September asking if she could come home from school after she began experiencing shortness of breath.

Within days, her lungs started to fail and doctors couldn't say why, CNN reports.

Miraculously, with a brave heart and the help of a machine known as an ECMO, Zei is overcoming the odds, even walking and eating tacos while on life support.

The ECMO machine circulates a patient's blood through an artificial lung, adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide from the blood.

The technology takes over regular body functions to help give the lungs or heart time to heal.

But it was at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City that Zei and her doctors began a journey that could change the way doctors treat patients on life support.

Around Christmas, Zei made a holiday wish in the form of a hushed whisper.

"We were in Zei's room, and she had been marching in place for a little bit, and she looked at me with very little voice ... and just said, 'What do I have to do to walk?' And I told her 'if you can stand unassisted for five minutes, I'll figure it out,'" said Debbie Newton, director of the hospital's neonatal and pediatric ECMO program.

She ended up standing unassisted for seven minutes.

What Zei and her family did not know was the hospital had already discussed how they could allow patients to safely walk while on the ECMO machine, but the protocol hadn't been put into practice.

Newton and colleagues developed a comprehensive check list that would soon allow Zei up on her feet, making sure the ECMO was attached to her body safely and securely so she could move about.

The impact of those walks have been incredible, doctors say.

While the cause of Zei's medical emergency is still unknown, the hospital says the most recent X-rays showed improved lung functions. They attribute those positive results to walking and exercise while being tethered to the ECMO machine.

Newton cautions the ECMO machine does come with some possible complications, including risk of infections and potential side effects related to bleeding.

But, doctors said Zei's bravery will likely lead to advancements that will help patients, particularly children, in the future.

"I hope someday Zei realizes not only what she's done for our program but what she's going to do for other programs," Newton said. "I don't think at 16, you can really wrap your mind around that, especially when right now her ultimate goal is to just go home, but I hope someday that she realizes the impact she's had on us and hopefully others out there in the world."
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