Teen athlete has hands, legs amputated after rare complication from the flu

(NEW YORK) — Mathias Uribe was a healthy 14-year-old kid looking forward to his freshman year of high school, during which he planned to join the cross-country team and continue to play piano, according to his parents Edgar and Catalina Uribe.

That all changed in late June, when Mathias developed flu-like symptoms, including a high fever.

“His body was red and he was also showing some rashes, which [doctors] told us was due to the high fever,” Edgar Uribe told ABC News’ Good Morning America, noting they took Mathias to the doctor twice. “And that was for about four to five days.”

At the end of June, Mathias’ condition quickly worsened, which prompted his parents to take him to a local emergency room.

There, they were told that his case of flu had worsened to pneumonia and he became hypoxic, meaning his body was not getting enough oxygen. Shortly after, Mathias, who had no preexisting health conditions, went into cardiac arrest.

“He just all of a sudden went into cardiac arrest, and he went into cardiac arrest for about six minutes,” Edgar Uribe recalled. “We were asked to step out of the room. The doctors all rushed into the room try to get his vital signs.”

Once doctors were able to revive Mathias, he was airlifted from their local hospital in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, to a larger hospital. From there, he had to be transferred again, this time to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, where he could receive the most critical care.

For the next two weeks, Mathias was intubated and put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine — known as an ECMO machine — which removes carbon dioxide from the blood and sends back blood with oxygen to the body, pumping that blood through the body and allowing the heart and lungs time to rest and heal.

Edgar Uribe recalled being told by doctors that they weren’t sure if Mathias would survive, and if he did, what brain function he would have, if any.

He and his wife, also the parents of a 9-year-old son named Nicholas, described it as a “second by second” waiting game to see what would happen to their eldest son.

“Every single day, you just don’t know what you’re going to wake up to. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Edgar Uribe said. “It’s been really tough, especially having Nicholas. He’s 9 years old and that’s his best friend.”

Dr. Katie Boyle, a pediatrician and co-leader of Mathias’ medical team at the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, said that while Mathias started out with a flu diagnosis, his health deteriorated rapidly when he developed bacterial pneumonia with an invasive streptococcal infection as a complication of the flu.

From there, according to Boyle, Mathias developed streptococcal toxic shock syndrome and septic shock.

Streptococcal toxic shock syndrome is a disease where a person develops a severe immune response to toxins released from the bacteria and, as a result, their tissues and organs do not get enough oxygenated blood. Sepsis is the body’s response to an infection that can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Boyle, also an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric care at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, said both conditions are rare, especially in an otherwise healthy teenager like Mathias.

“Most of [the cases] are in patients who have problems with their immune system or are on medications that cause immune system problems,” Boyle said.

Referring to Mathias, she added, “Having the flu kind of set him up for potentially having a bacterial infection, but even then it’s pretty rare to get something so severe. In his case, it’s like he had an immune response to the bacteria that was overwhelming.”

Despite the odds, within one week of being in the intensive care unit on life support, Mathias’ parents noticed his first movements.

“I noticed that he started to move his shoulders, and I said that to the doctors,” said Catalina Uribe, noting that doctors began doing tests on him to see if he would respond. “They tried to say to him, ‘Mathias, do you hear us?,’ and I started to scream to him and to say to him, ‘Mathias, show that you are here. Show them that you are here, Mathias."”

She continued, “And he started to move all his body. That was a beautiful moment for us.”

Mathias’ parents and his doctors would go on to find that he had not lost any brain function, despite being in cardiac arrest for six minutes, a discovery that they all described as a miracle.

Finding a new normal in life as an amputee

More obstacles were to come, however, when it became clear that the disruption of blood flow to Mathias’ hands and legs had resulted in irreversible damage.

“When he woke up and they removed the ventilator and they removed the ECMO machine after 14 days, they [told] us about the first amputation, and that maybe he was going to lose a leg,” said Catalina Uribe. “After that procedure [to amputate his left leg] they said to us in a big meeting with a lot of doctors, they say the other leg doesn’t look good too, and also the hands.”

The Uribes said they struggled greatly thinking about what their son’s future might look like without his own legs and hands.

“He runs cross country. He runs track and field in school. He plays the piano. He’s a very, very, very smart kid,” said Edgar Uribe. “He was going to be a freshman in high school. His dream was to go to [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and be an engineer.”

Catalina Uribe recalled crying alongside Mathias as he was told by doctors that he would need further amputations.

The teenager has undergone 14 surgeries so far in order to preserve as much function as possible while still amputating his forearms below the elbow on both arms, as well as one leg below the knee and one leg above the knee, according to Boyle.

The Uribes said they have been amazed by Mathias’ strength, both physically in what his body has overcome and emotionally.

“He’s really resilient. He’s like, ‘OK, this is what I need to get better, OK,"” said Catalina Uribe. “We don’t have words to describe how strong he is. I mean, he’s amazing.”

Edgar Uribe said he and his wife have told Mathias how critically ill he was in order to give him perspective on how far he has come. He said they as a family are moving forward with what they call their “new life.”

“We’ve said [to Mathias], ‘You have to be grateful you are alive. Mathias Uribe, you are all here. Your heart. Your mind. You are here,"” Edgar Uribe said, continuing. “‘We’re going to figure this out. At the beginning, we’re going to be your arms and legs. We’re going to help you out … Then you’re going to have prosthetics … You’ll be able to be an engineer and fulfill all your goals."”

The Uribes said that as Mathias continues to recover, they are hopeful he can be home in time for Christmas.

He is still in the intensive care unit while he continues to recover from surgery, but he should soon be discharged to a rehabilitation center, according to Boyle. He’ll then be fitted for prosthetics to help him regain his independence.

“He’s really reliant on nurses and his family for everything right now, whereas [before], he was a teenage boy who could just do everything and be more independent,” Boyle said, adding, “I think for everyone caring for him, it’s really hard emotionally to imagine what he’s going through and to think of a young person dealing with this, and then it’s also inspiring because you realize not only is he dealing with this, but he’s just very determined and very strong.”

The Uribes said they have been supported through Mathias’ health care by not only Boyle and the team of doctors and nurses at the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt but also by Mathias’ friends and classmates, his school, their friends and family and their local community. Family friends started a GoFundMe that has raised over $300,000 to help cover the costs of upcoming and likely lifelong expenses like Mathias’ prosthetics, his rehab care and renovations to make their home wheelchair-accessible.

They said they’ve found hope in their faith and in the belief that while the past three months have been “exhausting,” that there is a purpose to what happened and that Mathias will go on to live a “beautiful life.”

“We focus on what we gained in the situation,” said Catalina Uribe. “Yes, we lost a lot, but Mathias is here.”

“The simple fact that we could sit next to him and laugh together and tell him, ‘I love you,’ and just hear, ‘I love you, dad. You’re the best dad,’ or, ‘You’re the best mom in the world,’ that means everything to us,” said Edgar Uribe.

He added, “We are certain that Mathias is going to get up from here. He’s going to go to rehab. He’s going to get his prosthetics, and he’s going to do something really beautiful with his life.”

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