Robert Kass is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie. The 69-year-old is an avid rock climber, SCUBA diver and four-decade veteran softball player who once spent weeks sailing across the Pacific Ocean in a two-man vessel. Kass invested in his health through diet and exercise, and says he never had a serious illness in his life.
Then, in January 2021, he contracted COVID-19.
"I came home from work with a 102-degree fever," says Kass. "Within days, I was in the hospital and within a week I was told I had to be put on a ventilator."
Doctors at a hospital near Kass' Jacksonville, Florida, home performed a tracheostomy to connect him to oxygen. He would spend eight weeks under sedation, breathing by means of a ventilator, while his body battled against COVID-19.
Kass was unconscious on his birthday in early March 2021 but soon awoke to a new age on his driver's license and much weaker than before. His health care providers told him to expect months of rehabilitation — relearning how to walk and speak after his lengthy hospitalization. Kass defied the odds and completed those milestones in eight days.
"I was determined to get back home to my family, normal life," says Kass.
Despite his seemingly expeditious recovery, he still required a tracheostomy tube in order to breathe. Kass was diagnosed with tracheal stenosis, a narrowing of the trachea that can occur after tracheostomy placement. Over six months he underwent three endobronchial procedures to try and fix the stenosis from inside the airway. Unfortunately, the airway had structural damage which made it impossible to breathe without the tracheostomy tube. At home, he struggled with his breathing and keeping the tracheostomy tube clear. This prevented his active lifestyle and brought on feelings of depression.
He leaned on his support system: his family and his friends who he credits with giving him a different perspective to life.
After an emergency visit to an area hospital over the summer where Kass struggled to breathe, he and his wife got into their car and drove to Mayo Clinic Florida. That's where he was evaluated by Dr. Ian Makey, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Mayo Clinic, who recommended a tracheal resection and reconstruction surgery. This surgery involves removing the damaged section of the trachea and bringing the two healthy ends together. This removes the stenosis and structural damage from the windpipe. The surgery was a success.
"I walked in the door at Mayo Clinic, and they were ready for me," says Kass. "The next thing I know, I'm breathing and feeling alive again."
"The repair is under tension, so you have to let it heal. After six weeks it has strengthened to the point that the patient can return to normal activities," says Dr. Makey.
More than nine months after going into the hospital with COVID-19 and navigating roughly seven months of breathing challenges, Kass was finally back on track to his normal life, crediting his lifelong investment in his health, his care team at Mayo Clinic and his support system at home.
"I have my moments every now and then because I just I can't believe that I made it through this," says Kass. "I wouldn't be here without my wife, my support system and Mayo Clinic."
Today, he's happy to be able to speak without a tracheostomy tube and be able to tell his story. Kass wants others facing a similar situation to be comforted knowing there are treatments available and hope in full supply.
"I know that there are people going to have the same type of surgery that I went through," says Kass. "If I can be a support system and talk to those people, I'd be happy to do it and share what I went through to put them at ease."
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