How Faith and ECMO saved Neal’s Life

Neil Cannon sitting with hospital gown surrounded by his family and care team

Neal Cannon, a 48-year-old and an active tennis player, chemistry teacher, husband and father, started noticing that he was constantly out of breath. He went to the doctor and had several tests performed to check for heart disease. One Sunday morning, as Neal and his family were getting ready for church, Neal wasn’t feeling well. Even his wife, Lindsey, noticed and asked him if he wanted to stay home. But Neal opted to go as he looked forward to teaching Sunday school class.

Neal talked with friends after arriving at church. He happened to be standing near a police officer, and within a few moments, Neal passed out. The officer and church congregation stepped into action to help and called 911. Neal was brought to Baptist Hospital Emergency Department via ambulance, and the paramedics rushed him in. “The clinical team worked quickly,” Lindsey said. “They were calm and very professional. They made sure that we felt comfortable. They delivered the news of their (treatment) plan, which gave us hope.”

The clinical team told Neal’s wife that he was suffering from a massive saddle pulmonary embolism, a blot clot that would require surgery.

Neal’s nurse came in and informed his family that the physician Neal needed to see was not scheduled to work that day, a Sunday, but happened to be at the hospital anyway. “I just knew this was God looking out for our family,” Lindsey said. “Neal was scared, but we prayed together, and I was comforted knowing we had a plan.”

Neal went to surgery while Lindsey waited and prayed. After a few hours, the surgeon came out and shared with Lindsey that they had to make an emergency decision to place him on an ECMO machine. ECMO stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation machine, which is used to help support a patient’s heart and lungs and gives their body a chance to rest and heal. Due to Neal’s age and active lifestyle, Neal was given a 30% chance of survival, a higher percentage than most patients in his condition.

Lindsey was in shock after receiving this news. “When you're in a situation with no control, you feel like you have no place to go,” she said. “I think many times, we, as humans, feel like we're in control of many things. However, God let me know He was in control of our situation.”

Lindsey went upstairs to the ECMO treatment center to say goodnight to her husband like she does every night. Upon entering his room, she was overwhelmed by how her husband looked attached to so many different devices that were helping keep him alive. A Baptist ECMO nurse named Tony came into the room and told Lindsey that he would explain each device and how they were helping her husband.

“Tony spent almost 45 minutes of his time giving me all the details, making me feel comfortable, and letting me know what questions I needed to ask,” Lindsey shared. “The time Tony took with me to explain everything and to say, ‘this is why we're doing this, and this is how it can help,’ really comforted me.”

Neal was on the ECMO machine for several weeks, and during that time, Lindsey met all the Baptist ECMO team members. The ECMO Program Medical Director is Enrique Diaz, M.D.* Dr. Diaz was instrumental in bringing ECMO to Baptist, the first of its kind to our region. Jon Neyman, CCP, RABT, is the perfusionist and ECMO program leader who works closely with Dr. Diaz, and many other ECMO team members provide care for patients like Neal.

Lindsey wanted everyone on the ECMO team and care teams to get to know Neal. She shared with them that Neal was very intelligent, a chemistry teacher and a fantastic father who liked to tell dad jokes to their two sons, William and Wesley. Neal is also an avid Alabama football fan.

One Saturday Lindsey noticed that the nurses had turned on college football in Neal’s room. “They did little things like that to make sure we knew they were there to make him feel comfortable,” she said. “He wasn’t just some patient; he was Neal, my husband and our boy’s father. They assured us they were there for anything we needed.”

After weeks of being on ECMO, Neal could finally start breathing independently. He woke up from being on ECMO feeling sick but happy to see his wife.

“I wasn’t sure what was going on (at first),” Neal said. “I didn’t remember how long I had been at Baptist when I woke up. It was like I was dreaming. Lindsey had to explain everything, and I couldn’t believe it. We were both so thankful for the Baptist ECMO team, and I knew God got me through it.”

Neal spent over a month at Baptist, and during that time, family, friends and their church congregation all came together to help with donations, food and caring for their two sons.

“People we didn't know that well, some people we didn't know at all, were all supporting us, praying for us, bringing our family food so that we could be there for Neal,” shared Lindsey.

When Neal finally went home, the Baptist ECMO team threw him a farewell celebration. After spending 31 days in the ECMO unit, the Cannon family became a part of the Baptist family. “We experienced so much love and support,” Lindsey said. “The Baptist ECMO team members, the custodians, the dietary team and more were all there for us the entire time. They helped see us through some very difficult days. From the day we entered the ED to the day they walked us out, we never felt alone, and we’ll be forever grateful for them.”

Today, Neal is enjoying spending time with his family. They go on walks together and are focused on living a healthy lifestyle. Neal is slowly getting back into tennis and keeps his boys laughing with his funny dad jokes. He shared, “I feel so fortunate that God took care of the timing and that he placed me in the hands of the right people that ultimately helped save my life.”

 (Note: *Enrique Diaz, M.D., is an independent member of the medical staff of Baptist Hospital. He is not an employee or agent of Baptist Health Care.)