A 26-year-old coronavirus patient who was pronounced brain dead in June just walked out of the hospital a survivor

FILE PHOTO: Medical workers treat a patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the intensive care unit (ICU) of the Infanta Sofia University hospital in Madrid, Spain, May 14, 2020. REUTERS/Susana Vera
Medical workers treat COVID-19 in Madrid.
  • A 26-year-old North Carolina coronavirus survivor returned home Tuesday after being declared brain dead in June. 
  • She had suffered complications including strokes, which have struck other young coronavirus patients for reasons doctors don't fully understand. 
  • Doctors also don't know why some critically ill young patients who were previously healthy die while others bounce back.  
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When Tionna Hairston stopped breathing for 30 minutes in June, her doctors pronounced her brain dead. 

The 26-year-old in North Carolina was diagnosed with COVID-19 in May, and subsequently suffered a stroke that led to bleeding in her brain and blood clots in her heart, the Winston-Salem Journal's Richard Craver reported

The conditions left her unable to fully use her arms and legs, and she was put on a ventilator for more than two months. She also suffered cardiac arrest and kidney and liver failure. 

Doctors "thought that we should take her off of life support because she had no hope for life," Hairston's mom, Stacey Peatross said, according to Rasheeda Kabba, who covered the story for multiple local outlets. "They thought she would be a vegetable. She wouldn't have any quality of life at all." 

They were wrong. After family, friends, and strangers prayed for her, Hairston began improving. She entered rehab for more than a month, where she relearned basic activities of daily living, like eating and getting dressed. 

On Tuesday, she walked out of the hospital to continue rehab at home. She had been in medical care for 137 days. "My faith in God and the fact that I wanted to walk again" allowed her to survive, Hairston said. 

 

While she's not fully recovered — she walks with a walker and has some memory loss — her doctors praised her recovery and the lessons it can teach others. 

First, people should know "20-somethings can get very sick from COVID and COVID complications," Dr. James McLean, director of the Novant rehabilitation hospital in Winston-Salem, told Craver. "It's not just older folks." 

The other lesson is that Hairston "demonstrated that human spirit, that little flame inside that keeps us going, shows us that people can overcome things that we could never imagine."

Other young COVID-19 patients have suffered strokes and neurological issues  

Doctors have been concerned to see strokes in young people with no prior history of strokes and, in some cases, mild or even asymptomatic COVID. 

In May, five young New Yorkers with COVID-19 were admitted to the hospital with life-threatening "large-vessel" strokes, or those caused by a blood clot that travels from the body into an artery in the brain, Business Insider's Aylin Woodward previously reported

Doctors don't yet understand exactly how COVID-19 influences stroke risk, but it may have to do with blood clots, which have appeared in other parts of coronavirus patients' bodies, like the lungs and legs. 

COVID-19 has also been linked to a range of other neurological issues, including delirium, brain fog, and memory lapses. Some experts have even warned of an epidemic of brain damage. 

"My worry is that we have millions of people with COVID-19 now. And if in a year's time we have 10 million recovered people, and those people have cognitive deficits ... then that's going to affect their ability to work and their ability to go about activities of daily living," Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at Western University in Canada, told Reuters.

Michael Goldsmith returns home
Michael Goldsmith returning home April 19.

It's unclear why some young critically ill patients who were previously healthy recover and others die, but Hairston is not the only success story.

Michael Goldsmith, a 34-year-old husband and father in New Jersey, was in a medically-induced coma and on a ventilator for 22 days while fighting a severe case of COVID-19. At the same time, his family and community advocated for access to the drug remdesivir, which they thought might be his only chance of survival. 

He never got the drug, but recovered, and doctors don't know why. 

After returning home, Goldsmith told Insider he cherished simple moments like snuggling with the family while watching TV. "It's the little things that you hope for, and I would say 'you dream about,'" Michael said, "but after going through the coma, I don't know for sure that was the case."

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