On a scary night in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Andy Herber was hoping for the best.
His four-year-old son, Nathan, was undergoing extra corporeal membrane oxygenation, also known as ECMO. Blood was being pumped from his body to a heart-lung machine to remove carbon dioxide and send oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in his body.
Nathan's nurse, Jessica Mc Nallan, was right by his side.
Nathan, who had been diagnosed with high-risk T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, had contracted a respiratory infection and was admitted for general pediatric hospital care. When his condition worsened, he was admitted to the Pediatric ICU at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Rochester.
His was a common infection, but Nathan's treatment made fighting it more difficult.
"I had been caring for Nathan for several days, and as time went on, we were exhausting our resources and reaching the limit of what we could do to help him and his breathing situation," Mc Nallan says. "The respiratory infection was a common one that we see so frequently in the ICU, but Nathan's immune system was at its lowest point after a round of chemotherapy treatment for his underlying cancer. It was scary watching him slip away and not respond to everything we were trying."
Each minute that passed, Nathan was closer to failure, as his body began to shut down.
In a final attempt to help his lungs heal and get oxygen to all his vital organs, the care team decided to try ECMO. This would allow the oxygenation of his blood without making his lungs do the work.
The team discussed whether they could get Nathan safely to the operating room, which would be a better option than trying to do the procedure in his hospital room. They ultimately decided they needed to try.
"That shift is one I will never forget," Mc Nallan says. "I knew this was an intense and risky endeavor, but I also knew this kid was not done fighting. Everyone on the team — the nurses, respiratory technicians, anesthesia, doctors — we all just knew our jobs and had all the right people in the right place at the right time.
"We were able to get Nathan to the operating room to place tubes (cannulation) for ECMO," she says. "That saved his life."
Mc Nallan, who has been at Mayo Clinic for 22 years, with 18 years in the Pediatric ICU, has worked with cancer patients her entire career. This training includes working with severely immunocompromised children in the ICU, and providing the medications and support these patients need in dire situations.
"In my work, I deal with a lot of emotional situations. Something about Nathan and his family struck me from the first time I took care of him. I feel like the family trusted me and knew I would do everything I could to help their son," she says.
Mc Nallan continued to follow Nathan's progress once he left the Pediatric ICU and was in the Cardiovascular ICU. From there he came back to the Pediatric ICU and continued to improve and impress everyone with his progress.
Nathan recently wrapped up 2 ½ years of cancer treatment, on March 25, and he graduated kindergarten on June 4.
"I got to know Jessica well while my son was in the PICU," Andy says. "I learned of the many extra certifications and training she has completed. There is no doubt in my mind her additional knowledge led to the incredibly astute care she provided to my son.
"I am biased, but I also have worked in medicine for over 15 years myself. I have never witnessed perfect nursing like Jessica provided. I think of that ICU stay and specifically that night every single day. I believe Jessica’s foresight, knowledge and confidence saved our son," he says. "Despite being in some of the most intensely stressful and time sensitive situations of our son’s hospitalization, the care she provided was absolutely flawless. She was right there at his side every step of the way. We will never be able to thank her enough."
Nathan is now thriving and enjoying being a kid. "Things like that really help us as care team members. Even though there are really, really tough shifts, we’re here for a reason," Mc Nallan says.
Because of the care Jessica Mc Nallan provided, Andy and his family have donated funds raised by a foundation he and his wife created to provide scholarships to pediatric nurses at Mayo Clinic for continuing education, certification or conference attendance. The Super Herber Bros Foundation was created in honor of Andy’s three sons, who all have medical needs.
"It’s very humbling to be acknowledged by this family. I did what I needed to do that night and Mayo prepared me well. I have so much respect and gratitude for the Herber family to come full circle and give back to Mayo," Mc Nallan says.
"Nathan will probably never fully know all that went into keeping him alive and without disability throughout his treatment course," she says. "He will never know all the people that had their hands on him during these trials, but I will never forget this little guy or the family’s giving spirit."
Learn more about Nathan's fight in this video.