In March, Ronald “Ronny” Pruitt, the head football coach for Union County High School in Lake Butler, and his wife, Robin, packed their bags for a spring break trip to the Bahamas. Before leaving, Ronny had the beginning of what seemed like a cold. His family physician prescribed a Z-Pak and Ronny hopped on a plane to Nassau with Robin to enjoy a vacation with their children and grandchildren.
Soon after they arrived, Ronny’s condition quickly deteriorated.
“I said to my wife, ‘If I don’t feel better, I’m going to need to see a doctor,’” said Ronny, 49.
Three days later, Ronny was overcome with fatigue and had a persistent cough. A local resident the Pruitt family knew from previous trips took Ronny to a private hospital where doctors found his oxygen-saturation level was below 70, with normal oxygen levels staying around 90. He was put on a ventilator.
“The last thing I remember was sitting on a gurney in a room with curtains,” Ronny said.
Doctors at the hospital told Robin they thought Ronny had pneumonia. She called her brothers John and Phillip, who live in Gainesville and know doctors at UF Health Shands Hospital. After consulting with doctors in Nassau, the UF Health physicians said Ronny might have H1N1, a potentially lethal virus also known as swine flu.
The physicians determined that Ronny should be taken immediately to Gainesville, and a UF Health ShandsCair emergency flight took off for the Bahamas in a Hawker jet, a fixed-wing aircraft that can transport patients from all over the world. Crew members picked up Ronny, who was on an ECMO machine, which provides cardiac and respiratory support for patients in acute respiratory failure. Ronny, in a twilight sleep, recalls seeing crew members in blue jumpsuits.
En route to Gainesville, with Eddie Manning, M.D., a surgeon in the division of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at UF Health, and the specialized ShandsCair clinical team, taking care of Ronny, the ShandsCair aircraft stopped at the Orlando International Airport for customs and then proceeded to the University Air Center in Gainesville. Once in Gainesville, Ronny was taken by ShandsCair ambulance to UF Health Shands Hospital.
“It was touch and go for the first week,” Ronny said. A medical team continued to stabilize, assess and treat Ronny’s symptoms for H1N1. In addition, Ronny had developed blood clots that traveled from his thigh to his groin.
“There was a 50-50 chance that they would have to take my leg,” he said.
Ronny also developed acute respiratory distress syndrome, a condition in which organs are deprived of oxygen, and his kidneys had stopped working. At the suggestion of Martin Rosenthal, M.D., a surgery resident at UF Health Shands Hospital, Ronny was placed in a RotoProne bed, which rotates and shifts organs around and moves bodily fluids. For a week, doctors rotated Ronny in the special bed but oxygen still was not traveling to his brain. Doctors considered that Ronny may be brain dead.
On April 25, Ronny awoke after 33 days in a medically induced coma without brain damage and with both legs. Coincidentally, it was also the first day of spring football training for the Union County High Fightin’ Tigers.
“My wife and our families were with me at all times. I was never left alone,” Ronny said.
For three months, Ronny continued to recover with the assistance of nurses, physicians and physical therapists at UF Health Shands Hospital. Ronny was taken off kidney dialysis, a medical treatment that can become a lifelong necessity, after three months. He left UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital after just 15 days even though doctors had expected his recovery to last a month.
Ronny’s care team still keeps in touch with the Pruitt family, and they have even attended Union County High football games this season.
“There were a lot of prayers, and I had some great nurses and doctors,” Ronny said.