Linda and Julie Bruene have a fun family tradition: They call each other when they discover a sentence that has never been said before.
For example, “I had a third foot and was jumping on a blanket with Kim Kardashian like it was a trampoline.”
None of that happened, but it wasn’t made up either. They are just a few of the vivid dreams Linda Bruene had while on a ventilator when she was critically ill with COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic.
“I don’t remember much of anything during that time other than those dreams,” she says. “Your mind goes to a different place. I made a long list of the things I thought were real, and some of them are really bizarre.”
She had intensive care unit delirium, which is common for people who are critically ill, says Julie Bruene, MD, Linda’s daughter-in-law and a sports medicine physician at RUSH.
“She was checked out during a time that was so critically important in her life,” Julie Bruene says. “She didn’t know what was happening. Of course, the world didn’t know what was happening with COVID-19 — we didn’t have a good grasp on it yet.”
‘My cat was licking my jury summons’
In mid-March 2020, the Bruene family got together for dinner. That was one week before a nationwide emergency was declared in the United States due to COVID-19, and it was certainly before mask mandates, vaccines and social distancing.
Shortly after the family dinner, Julie Bruene came up with a new sentence that had never been said before. She got a jury summons in the mail, and her cat was licking it. That requires an instant phone call in the Bruene family.
“My cat was licking my jury summons,” she told her mother-in-law.
Linda Bruene laughed, but she was also coughing and had a tough time catching her breath. Julie Bruene told her to go to the emergency room immediately, but it had to be at RUSH University Medical Center because she knows it is built to handle emergency health situations such as a pandemic. Linda Bruene tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving.
“We have my cat to thank for Linda getting the care she needed so quickly,” Julie Bruene says. “It was a serendipitous moment.”
Eight of the 10 people at the Bruene family dinner ended up testing positive for COVID-19. All of them had mild to moderate symptoms except for Linda Bruene, who was admitted to the intensive care unit soon after being admitted to RUSH.
Visitors were restricted at the medical center due to the pandemic, so Linda Bruene’s husband had to wait in the parking lot after dropping her off. After many hours, she finally called and told him, “You can go home and rest. I’m going to stay here for a while.”
Her ability to breathe was quickly declining. She was put a ventilator and needed to be in a proned position (placed on her stomach) for 12 hours a day to help her breathing.
Proning was a critical part of her treatment, but it caused her blood pressure to drop too low. The medication needed to bring her blood pressure back was hard on her kidneys, so she had to be put on dialysis.
“The team at RUSH was basically managing multiorgan failure for a patient in a COVID-19 environment that was unfamiliar to all clinicians at the time,” Julie Bruene says.
Family and friends did their best to get as much information as they could. They couldn’t be with her, but they sent plenty of texts even though she couldn’t read them. They also sent treats, such as doughnuts and beef sandwiches, to the nurses’ station to let them know their hard work during that extraordinary time was appreciated.
“Even with the mass chaos that was happening throughout the entire world, particularly in health care settings, RUSH always made sure we were in the loop,” Julie Bruene says. “There was no sugarcoating anything during those conversations, but it was measured and done with a lot of empathy. That is the ultimate kindness.”
The clinicians’ efforts paid off. Linda Bruene eventually improved and was taken off the ventilator, but she still faced some big hurdles. “I was paralyzed when I woke up,” she says. “I couldn’t feed myself, roll over or even scratch my nose.”
She was moved to a physical therapy facility, where she received three hours of physical therapy, occupational therapy, respiratory therapy and speech therapy a day. “Little by little, I improved,” Linda Bruene says.
Three months later, she was finally able to go home. It was the day before the Fourth of July, so her family called it “Linda-pendence Day.” Julie Bruene framed the jury summons that her cat licked and gave it to her mother-in-law to commemorate that key moment in her journey.
Shortly after that, Linda Bruene was walking again. Things were looking up.
She was still having some trouble breathing, though, so her lungs were monitored frequently with X-rays and CT scans. A CT scan showed a spot on her right lung. It was there in previous scans, but this time it was larger.
Then Linda Bruene started coughing.
“We were like, ‘Oh, no. What now?’” Julie Bruene says.
Saved by COVID-19 and quick-working physicians
Linda Bruene didn’t waste any time. She had a biopsy at RUSH that showed she had stage 2b lung cancer.
Michael Liptay, MD, a thoracic and cardiac surgeon at RUSH, performed the surgery to remove the tumor. “Her COVID-19 illness and history of other health issues made her a little higher risk for surgery,” he says. “But, gratefully, she did very well.”
Following surgery, Linda Bruene met with Philip Bonomi, MD, a since-retired oncologist, for additional treatment at RUSH.
“She was still very ill, and we had to weigh the potential benefit of treatment with the potential side effects in a person who was weakened from surgery and who had gone through COVID,” Bonomi says. “Although chemotherapy was a post-operative treatment option, we did not recommend this treatment because of her weakened condition. We recommended a therapy that targets a specific mutation in her tumor.”
Linda Bruene tolerated the treatment well, and she is now cancer-free.
“Dr. Bonomi and Dr. Liptay stepped right in and took care of it,” she says. “They said, ‘We’re going to get this done, and you’re going to be fine.’”
The outcome may have been very different if Linda Bruene wasn’t required to have her lungs scanned following her COVID-19 illness. People who have lung cancer often don’t have symptoms until the prognosis is dire, so clinicians rely on screening people who are at high risk of developing it in order to treat them in time.
“She had no symptoms that suggested she had a mass there,” Liptay says. “She wouldn't have been treated in as timely a matter if her lungs were not being monitored after COVID. The bottom line is people who have lung cancer die if they aren’t treated in time. The screening saved her life.”
“Her COVID illness was a blessing in disguise,” Bonomi says.
For people who are at a high risk of developing lung cancer — like Linda Bruene— RUSH has a screening program that has helped clinicians uncover approximately six patients every month who can then receive the treatment they urgently need.
This sentence doesn’t end with a period
Linda Bruene is now feeling well and enjoying her time with her family.
“I’m grateful because this could have gone in a really different direction,” she says. “I thank my family for being so diligent. I believe in my heart that I would not have made it through this if I wasn’t treated at RUSH.”
Her family is grateful too. No more COVID-19 restrictions — they can visit her whenever they want. Or they can call her whenever they want, especially when one of them wants to share a sentence that has never been said before.
“I mean, her story in itself is a sentence that has never been said before,” Julie Bruene says. “But it’s a sentence that doesn’t end with a period. It has a comma or an ellipsis, and it’s going to run on and on for a long time. And that’s only because of the care she got at RUSH.”