Lydia with her doctor Peter Oishi.

Homeward Bound: How Lydia's Doctors Helped Her Beat the Odds

Lydia Ledford was a completely healthy 8-year-old until she came down with a bad cough just before Christmas 2014. At first Emily and Mike Ledford thought their daughter had a cold, but they quickly noticed that her breathing and heartbeat seemed off.

A visit to an urgent care clinic in their hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., revealed that an infection and pneumonia in Lydia's lungs were causing them to collapse. The family soon found itself on a helicopter headed for UCSF.

Unfortunately, Lydia's illness — which doctors believe was the flu and a bacterial infection — worsened rapidly. By New Year's Eve, she was hooked up to a heart-lung bypass machine, also called ECMO. After about a month on the machine, Lydia hadn't improved, and her doctors began to worry she wouldn’t make it.

"It was at that point that we were starting to feel really worried," says Dr. Peter Oishi, one of Lydia's doctors in the UCSF Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. "It's hard to find too many kids who survive that long on ECMO."

Lydia's medical team held an emergency brainstorming meeting and decided that her situation was dire and required riskier therapies. Soon after, doctors removed a large blood clot from the right side of her chest and succeeded in opening her left lung by moving her breathing tube.

Lydia began to improve, and her care team was able to wean her off ECMO after a total of 55 days on the machine. She surprised everyone by making an extraordinarily swift recovery. In early April, Lydia headed home to Bakersfield, where she was reunited with her 3-year-old sister, Abigail, and started karate classes again.

Doctors will keep monitoring Lydia's right lung, which has some scar tissue, but expect her to lead a healthy, normal life.

Her parents share the story of their older daughter's experience at UCSF.

How did you notice there was something unusual about Lydia's cold?

Emily Ledford: It was around Christmas when she really wasn't feeling well. All she had was a dry cough — she didn't have a fever anymore. One day I was snuggling with her, and I noticed her heart was beating faster and she was breathing funny. That's when we went to urgent care.

Mike Ledford: She ended up having a collapsed lung, and she got ambulanced to the ER. They suggested flying us up here to UCSF. Within 24 hours, her lungs completely failed. If we had stayed in Bakersfield, she wouldn't have made it through the night.

Was Lydia conscious while she was on the ECMO machine?

Emily: She was sedated a lot, but it was really hard to keep her sedated. Eventually, she would start opening her eyes, and we would play movies for her and she would respond with nods.

When her lungs finally popped open, you could tell she was feeling better and was ready to start moving. She was like, "Why do I have this tube in my mouth?" One day she said, "Wait, did I miss Valentine’s Day?" She really loves the holidays.

What was Lydia's recovery process like?

Emily: It was rough some days because she was having withdrawals from her drugs, and she didn't want to do physical therapy. She was scared to do things because she didn't want to hurt herself.

Then one day the physical therapist said, "We have to walk this many steps." Lydia stood up out of her wheelchair and started walking. She just had such a positive attitude, and she wanted to walk everywhere. It was pretty remarkable. She’s such a strong girl.

What was it like to see your younger daughter, Abigail, again after more than three months apart?

Emily: The last time I saw her was when I took Lydia to urgent care. It was such an amazing feeling to see her and hold her again. The whole situation was so surreal. When you’re in the hospital, you just have to have a here-and-now attitude.

How have things been for Lydia now that she's home?

Emily: It's so funny because it’s like everything just fell back to normal. In physical therapy she's doing better and better and better. She's running and jumping. They're predicting she'll make a full recovery. They don't know if she'll have issues with her right lung because of her scar tissue.

Does Lydia understand how unusual her recovery was?

Emily: She's so smart and she likes to know everything. My husband tells her everything. She says, "You were scared I was going to die." She's embracing the fact that she's made a remarkable recovery.

Did you always believe Lydia would survive?

Emily: Always. I never doubted her. She's so strong, and she's so positive. When she has a mission to get well, she's going to do it.


Interviewed by Jessica Bernstein-Wax. Photos by Tom Seawell.