LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Friends, family, hospital staff, and co-workers lined the sidewalk outside Baptist Health Louisville on Friday with posters and matching t-shirts reading, "Brianna Strong."

They were all waiting for 40-year-old Brianna Heitzman to be discharged from the hospital. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 in October and months later, is finally going home.

"It's a new normal and just different feelings, getting to see all of my co-workers and all of my clients I haven't seen in five months," said Heitzman as she came outside the hospital doors. "I've missed them all so much."

The journey for Heitzman has not been easy. At Baptist Health Louisville, she was put on a ventilator and eventually placed on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) and transferred to UK Healthcare in Lexington for several weeks. The past two months, she's been back at Baptist Health for rehab.

According to Baptist Health Louisville, both of Heitzman's legs had to be amputated due to limb ischemia. For the same reason, she also ended up having to have four of her fingers amputated. 

"COVID ends up affecting a lot of different parts of the body and the body is designed when you’re not getting enough oxygen in your lungs, through your lungs, because of the COVID, your body naturally takes the oxygen and gives it to the most precious resources, so your brain and your heart and your lungs and it will rob oxygen from your limbs and your blood in order to save your life," said Baptist Health Infectious Disease Physician Dr. Ben Klausing.

He said this only occurs "in the sickest of the sickest people."

"Because of both the ECMO therapy and COVID, you can end up with ischemia. It’s an unfortunate complication of COVID and of ECMO," said Klausing. 

Heitzman's family says one of the most difficult parts of this for them was being stuck on the outside. Safety precautions kept them from being in the room physically with Heitzman and their conversations were through a phone or computer screen. 

Heitzman says one day in December, doctors told her they needed to rush her into surgery immediately and amputate both of her legs.

"I remember my mom and my sister crying over the phone. Nobody was with me the day that they told me," said Heitzman. "My legs were removed and then my fingers were necrotic but they weren't removed until I returned here to Baptist East Hospital."

"It was just life-changing. You never think that your family member is going to be like this. You never think it's going to do this to your family," said Heitzman's sister.

But Heitzman kept pushing every day and fighting back. She's still on an oxygen tank, but she's awake, alive, and now going home with her family. 

"I just knew that I had to do it. My mindset was that I have to do this, there's no choice in the matter," she said. "I just woke up every day knowing I had them (family) and my four dogs that were relying on me to come home so I needed to do what I needed to do to make it through each day."

She says she's also learned a lot about new ways to move her body during the two-month rehab stay. 

Heitzman says she's most looking forward to being home with her dogs again because they are like her children, and eating a home-cooked meal. 

Her message now is for people to continue to protect themselves and others.

"There's still people out there that think COVID is not real and COVID is very real. I lost limbs because of it. So please people wear your mask and be cautious and careful," said Heitzman. 

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