Against The Odds, Teen With Cerebral Palsy Overcomes COVID-19
NEW MILFORD, N.J. — Double pneumonia. A compromised immune system. Diminished lung capacity.
And the coronavirus.
Jimmy Komninos didn’t want to think about what all that could mean for his 14-year-old daughter, Zoey. But he began to prepare himself for what seemed inevitable — planning a funeral.
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Zoey, who has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder, had been at Hackensack University Medical Center for days, having contracted COVID-19 after one of her home nurses was exposed to the disease.
She was on a ventilator, in a medically induced coma. Pediatric intensive care nurses turned her onto her stomach to help drain fluid from her lungs. Her 55-pound body lay prone, strewn with tubes and gauze and wires.
“Of all people, she should not have been able to survive this,” Jimmy says. “That’s the bottom line.”
Yet somehow, after nearly a month in the hospital, Zoey came home.
“It’s a miracle,” says her mother, Melanie Ollick Komninos. She was at Zoey’s side for every moment of her treatment, from March 19 to April 13.
“There’s no other word to describe it,” Jimmy says. “Nobody really knows what happened. All they know is her body recovered over time.”
Against all odds
Electrodes pasted to Zoey’s scalp monitored her for seizure activity.
Doctors and nurses entered her room in the epilepsy monitoring unit wearing masks, face shields, gowns and double gloves.
Even in the realm of high-risk COVID-19 patients, Zoey was particularly vulnerable.
In addition to cerebral palsy, she has chronic lung infections. They’ve been happening at least once a year — sometimes three times a year — long before anyone was talking about the novel coronavirus or a pandemic.
Zoey, who cannot walk or talk, receives nutrition through a gastrostomy tube in her stomach. Because she can’t swallow, she aspirates saliva into her lungs, causing pneumonia. Scoliosis adds to Zoey’s risk because her curved spine crushes her left lung, eliminating 30 percent of her lung capacity, Jimmy says.
The New Milford family uses a pulse oximeter to measure Zoey’s oxygen level. If she needs two liters per minute, she has to return to the hospital.
“We’re always monitoring her numbers,” Jimmy says. “She’s always hooked up to the machines.”
In the hospital, doctors observed Zoey through a continuous EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain. She has Lennox–Gastaut syndrome, a seizure disorder that can be exacerbated by illness.
“We were on edge for that,” says Felicia Gliksman, Zoey’s pediatric neurologist at Hackensack University Medical Center.
Her word for Zoey’s recovery: “Amazing.”
“Anybody who is medically fragile like her, your body doesn’t have the strength to fight off infections and try to continue breathing on its own, so you’re already weak overall,” Gliksman says.
Even with the added risk, Zoey had full days in the hospital when no seizure activity was detected.
Melanie watched over Zoey night and day at her bedside, sharing updates on Facebook. They were just five miles from the family’s home, but Jimmy couldn’t hug Zoey or even see her in person.
Even after completing a 14-day quarantine with their eldest daughter and son, he couldn’t visit Zoey because she was in her own quarantine.
Eventually, she was taken off the ventilator. Her condition continued to improve. Then came one negative coronavirus test result. And another.
After 26 days in the hospital, a medical transport carried Zoey home.
“Being able to wean her off of a ventilator in the setting of COVID is truly amazing, but even in the context of her other respiratory illnesses that have landed her in the ICU,”
Gliksman says. “She really beat a lot of odds being able to be extubated and being able to be home.”
Gliksman recently had a virtual office visit with Zoey, who is nonverbal but can make sounds.
“I have never seen her as vocal,” she says.
“It’s nice to see,” says Melanie, 47. “I’m not sure how that happened. I hope it sticks. Maybe that rest she got while she was on the ventilator did her beautiful brain good.”
A spring after the storm
Zoey was similarly vocal when she first saw her father again, along with her sister Hailey, 16, and her brother Dimitri, 13. She arrived home with her mother in time for Greek Orthodox Easter a few days later. Friends had decorated their fence with ribbons, and the town sent a certificate welcoming her home.
Since then, the family has been getting back to some version of “normal.” Melanie has returned to work remotely at her insurance job, and Zoey is back to listening to classical music and catching up on her favorite Nickelodeon shows.
“Everything she’s ever known is in her room,” says Jimmy, 49, a manager at a diner. “Basically her whole world is in there. Once she gets back in that environment, it relaxes her a little bit. She realizes that she’s not going to get poked and prodded.”
On a recent afternoon, Jimmy, Melanie and Zoey took a rare trip outside after a rainstorm to sit on a swing in the front yard.
Zoey was able to go without her oxygen and was making eye contact. She noticed a bird hopping on a nearby tree. The chirps of spring were a far cry from the constant beeps of the machines in her hospital room.
For once, no one was wearing a mask.
The simple act of being together — reuniting “Zozo” with her “Dadoo” — has acted as a balm for the stressful weeks the family spent apart.
During that time, a swell of community support helped ease the tense situation. Locals have long rallied around Zoey.
“This time it was different,” Melanie says.
A GoFundMe campaign organized by Donna Tartini, Melanie’s friend from high school, has so far raised more than $21,000 for Zoey and her family. Volunteers also delivered meals to Jimmy and the kids.
Paulette Laurenzi, who runs the Spring Lake Toys Foundation, read about Zoey’s COVID-19 diagnosis on NJ.com. The Franklin Lakes-based nonprofit provides financial assistance to families whose children have serious illnesses and special needs, and had previously helped Zoey with a Halloween costume.
Laurenzi reached out to the family and started a Facebook campaign to raise money. The effort generated $12,500 for Zoey’s medical and related expenses.
“It’s such a beautiful story to see her pull through,” Laurenzi says.
Vikram Kumar, who owns a Mobil station on River Road in New Milford, offered the Komninos family free gas for a year after reading the story about Zoey and thinking of his own daughter.
“They already have it so bad, so I just wanted to make it a little bit easier for them,” he says.
Melanie says the family doesn’t yet know what to expect when it comes to medical bills, but the donations could fill many needs, including those not covered by insurance.
“I think of all the uncovered medical equipment we could get now, so it makes my heart happy,” she says.
The family also wants to modify a van to accommodate Zoey, buy a high-low chair with a tray and install both a ramp to the yard and a special swing.
But even the messages of support that came through social media were a comfort as Melanie sat in Zoey’s hospital room.
“It was just amazing. Very therapeutic,” she says. “It really helped keep my head on track. Everybody was rooting for her.”
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