DIXON - When Rochelle native Carlie Hamburg, 21, got married in September, she didn’t realize weeks later she’d be fighting for her life against COVID-19 at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb.
Carlie, who is unvaccinated, said she believes she contracted the virus from a concert she went to in September.
She said she’s sharing her journey to show others that the virus’ toll is real, and that people should seriously consider getting vaccinated. She will herself, she said, once doctors give her the OK as part of the recovery process.
“I hope somebody somewhere listens,” Hamburg said Thursday from Marionjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, where she spent her last night eagerly awaiting her homecoming.
Her ordeal lasted nearly four months among three hospitals. She was placed on a ventilator and a heart and lungs bypass machine. On Friday, accompanied by her 23-year-old husband Brandon, Carlie returned to their home in Dixon, 121 days after she was hospitalized. They took their first newlywed photo since the wedding with their dog, Bella.
“I’m not going to lie, I was one of those people that was like, ‘COVID’s political. It’s not that bad. It’s nothing. I’m not getting vaccinated. I won’t be a sheep,’” Hamburg said in recollection.
Her experience changed her thoughts on the virus 110%, she said.
“I think, unfortunately, it’s something you have to go through to realize — which sucks,” Hamburg said. “But even some of our closer friends that have gotten it are still like, ‘I’m not getting vaccinated.’ I’m like, ‘You were so sick, complaining; why wouldn’t you?”
‘Nine lives’ for the newlyweds
Carlie married the love of her life, Brandon Hamburg, a graphic designer, on Sept. 18 at Barnacopia in Polo. They met when she was 14 and he was 16 through their mutual love of bowling. He went to school in Dixon and she was in Rochelle. They started dating Dec. 20, 2014.
“We were having a jolly old time,” Hamburg said. “[My grandma said] ‘What you guys are dealing with is something that makes you or breaks you,’ I think it definitely has made our relationship. He’s literally been a huge part of my mental health and getting through everything because it’s not been easy. I owe that kid the world.”
A week after her wedding, Carlie and her sister went to see rapper NF in concert in Dixon, though she had a headache. She thought it was because she hadn’t eaten all day. She woke up the next day “sicker than a dog,” she said, but chalked it up to a late night out.
She went to her job running a Maurices clothing retail store the next day, but left early. By Friday, Sept. 24, she felt miserable.
“I was texting my mom and she was like, ‘You need to go get tested for COVID’,” Hamburg recalled. She went to the emergency room, got a COVID-19 test and waited for her results: Positive.
“They told me to take a Tylenol every six hours and that did nothing for me,” Hamburg said. “I suffered through the morning of Sept. 29. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t sleep at all. I was texting my mom because she’s a nurse at Kish and she was like ‘You need to get over here. Go wake Brandon up.’”
When Carlie arrived at Kishwaukee’s emergency room, her blood oxygen was leveling around 50%. A healthy person should report levels near 95%. She was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) with COVID-19 pneumonia.
“I remember them giving me oxygen and running the bloodwork,” Hamburg said, in between a bout of coughs, which she still has. “After that, the only thing I remember was literally screaming ‘No’ to my mom and dad because they were putting me on a vent. And my mom and dad saying how sorry they were.”
On Oct. 8, sedated and on a ventilator, Carlie was flown in a helicopter to Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield. She remained for 110 days. She speaks candidly about the toll hospitalization took on her mentally, the isolation and missing holidays, birthdays and the 7-year anniversary of dating Brandon.
Hamburg recalled a moment when she realized how ill she was.
“My mom was here and I was having a horrible day,” Hamburg said. “My mom started bawling and was like, ‘You need to live for today. When you were so sick we thought we were going to have to bury our baby.’” And that’s when I was finally like, ‘Whoa, OK. I had like three or four near-death experiences.”
The 21-year-old suffered a series of complications as her body fought the virus, including blood clotting and bleeding.
“So, I have somebody watching me,” Hamburg said. “I feel like a cat. I’ve got nine lives. I’m using them up a little too quickly.”
Hamburg’s journey with a ventilator was not as fruitful as doctors wanted, said Dr. Jonathan Tomasko, a heart surgeon at Central DuPage.
To combat that, he used an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine. The ECMO is a cardiac machine similar to a bypass that is connected to a patient by a tube through a vein in their neck and another through their leg. The tubes move blood in and out of the body to re-oxygenate it, taking pressure off laboring heart and lungs.
As was Carlie’s case, ECMO machines are often used for gravely ill COVID-19 patients when a ventilator is no longer effective. While ventilated, patients are often flipped on their stomach, because it’s harder to breathe while lying on your back, Tomasko said.
“When I first met Carlie, she was so sick she couldn’t be flipped over,” Tomasko said. “She was literally dying at Kish. She’s 21, everyone was like, ‘What are we going to do?’ So they gave me a call.”
Even on ECMO, Hamburg remained for a time on a ventilator, though her body still struggled to get oxygen because her lungs were so inflamed.
“So I said, ‘Let’s take the breathing tube [ventilator] out and see what happens because she’s getting full support on ECMO’,” Tomasko said. “She was able to talk and interact with us. At least this way she could talk or say goodbye.”
Hamburg remained on the ECMO machine awake and alert and able to move around, from the end of September until Christmas Day. She suffered other complications from the virus, however, including blood clots, and the inability to eat. She couldn’t walk or stand on her own.
On Jan. 5, Hamburg was able to leave the hospital and began her stay at Marianjoy. She’s done nearly a month of physical therapy, training her body to walk again, building her lungs back up, working on endurance and balance.
She’ll continue that therapy at her home in Dixon.
“When you go through something like ECMO and being away from family, I basically got ripped out of my whole setting for almost half a year and went through hell,” Hamburg said. “I would be lying if I said I don’t think I have a little bit of PTSD from it.”
Surviving a near-death experience and being hooked to machines for months has left her on edge.
“I got a nosebleed today and about lost my marbles because the last time I had a nosebleed I was at [Central DuPage] bleeding to death,” she said. “So the simplest of things kind of set me off.”
That’s one of the reasons she’s been allowed to go home a week early. Her discharge was supposed to be next Friday, Feb. 4.
“I’m kind of hitting a wall at this point, I was crying every day, wanting somebody to be here,” Hamburg said. “This is probably the most depressed I have ever felt. Which, quick fix, go home. My whole mood this week has changed since I found out I was going home.”
Brandon’s dutifully visited every day, and Hamburg’s been able to call her family daily, including her parents, Bruce and Tracy Elder, and sister Alyssa. She heralded the gracious nurses and hospital staff.
On Friday, mom and husband got to take Carlie home. She was wheeled into her home and greeted with kisses from Bella.
Her spirit while in the hospital remains something Tomasko, who’s treated about two dozen COVID-19 patients through ECMO, won’t forget, he said.
“She’s a great person, she’s got a great spirit and her family is amazing,” Tomasko said. “We spent an awful lot of time together, and got to know her and her family very well. She’s definitely going to leave a mark on me. She’s just a really good fighter and an amazing personality.”
That fighting spirit is something Hamburg believes is the reason why she’s still alive today.
“Even at the lowest, there’s turning points,” Hamburg said. “Literally giving up isn’t an option. It’s not over until it’s over. I just hope [my story] is taken in a positive light, not a ‘Stupid COVID,’ or ‘COVID’s not that.’ I guess if people want to think that they can, but I have picture proof.”
Hamburg said she’s most looking forward to vacation and much needed married time with Brandon.
“We’re planning our honeymoon around when I get better,” Hamburg said. “My husband dirt track races, which is something that’s very hard to do when you’re using a walker and wheelchair and your lungs suck and you’re on oxygen. So I’m excited to get back to normal so we can go racing again.”