Rabbi Larry Heimer is a familiar face at UPMC Presbyterian and Montefiore hospitals, visiting patients and leading the hospital system’s pastoral care team.
He was in good health until a routine echocardiogram indicated he needed an aortic valve replacement. Larry talked with his cardiologist and decided to have surgery, which would include additional procedures to protect his heart.
Not long after, surgery took place at UPMC Shadyside. Initially, Larry did well. However, several days later, he aspirated drawing liquid into his lung while becoming ill. He was quickly intubated and returned to intensive care. Further complications, including septic shock and severe respiratory distress, continued. Larry was connected to a ventilator and a tracheostomy for airway support and feeding tube were placed.
It took several weeks for Larry to stabilize. At that point, his wife, Faith, had to decide the next step in care. She chose Select Specialty Hospital – Pittsburgh UPMC for additional healing and recovery time.
A physician-led team, including nurses and therapists, created a plan to get Rabbi Heimer back to his family and community.
Respiratory therapists began testing whether his lungs were ready to work independently. Through gradually reduced ventilator settings and breathing exercises that built stamina, Larry quickly progressed. Within a week, he only needed ventilator support at night.
Simultaneously, the physical and occupational therapy team began a mobility program. At first, Larry needed a two-person assist for nearly everything. To build strength, therapists assisted him out of bed twice daily, using more of his own effort each time.
His therapy team also used resistance and light weights to rebuild key muscle groups. As he grew stronger, Larry was able to stand and take several, assisted steps in his room.
Increased activity improved Larry’s breathing abilities and the ventilator was discontinued. Speech therapists then stepped in with exercises that restored swallowing reflexes. After passing a study indicating he could swallow safely, the feeding tube was discontinued. The speech therapist and dietitian coordinated a meal plan that eased his transition back to regular meals.
Three days later, Larry’s airway support was removed, replaced with a small tube of nasal oxygen.
Visitation restrictions related to COVID-19 eased, and Faith and their adult son, Howard, were able spend time with Larry regularly.
The couple’s 42nd wedding anniversary fell during Larry’s time at Select Specialty Hospital. He didn’t forget, and worked with his care team to have a beautiful bouquet delivered to his room ahead of her visit. Staff also posted a “Happy Anniversary” banner on his door.
Faith was thrilled and surprised, and their joy brought smiles to the entire floor.
Smiles were also in order watching Larry walk the halls independently with a therapist standing by. Ready for the next phase of healing, he departed for a short stint at an inpatient rehabilitation hospital to refine daily living skills and continue building strength.
"I always wanted to know what the patient experience was like,” Larry said. “Well, now I know!"