Wounded police officer survives with aid of new lung machine

January 31, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer

Days after being shot three times by an alleged robbery suspect, Baltimore County K-9 Officer James E. Beck was in critical condition. But it appeared he might pull through even though he could only communicate through hand signals.

Then he took a turn for the worse.

His lungs became inflamed with a condition that is fatal 50 percent of the time; his kidneys failed; he developed pneumonia; he had a heart attack.

But Officer Beck, 40, survived. His doctors at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center give credit for his recovery to a new lung machine they used to help oxygenate his blood. In fact, Officer Beck is the first patient at Shock Trauma who has survived after undergoing treatment on the machine, called an Extracorporeal Lung Assist, said Dr. Neal Reynolds.

Officer Beck arrived at Shock Trauma in the early hours of Oct. 31 with three gunshot wounds. Two of the 9 mm bullets, fired from a Glock semiautomatic handgun, hit him in the chest. The third hit him in the shoulder.

A 29-year-old Essex man accused of shooting Officer Beck on Pulaski Highway is awaiting trial.

Dr. Reynolds said one bullet damaged the upper part of Officer Beck's right lung. Fragments of that bullet remain in Officer Beck's lung.

Aside from the lung damage, the bullet also brought on a little-known condition called adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), in which certain chemicals in the lungs attack the lungs, causing them to become inflamed. Doctors aren't sure what purpose the chemicals have, but they do know the chemicals often come into play after a traumatic injury.

Dr. Reynolds said more than 150,000 Americans suffer from ARDS every year.

Officer Beck's lungs became so inflamed with ARDS that he could not breathe on his own. Doctors had him on a ventilator machine, but it did not help his lungs heal. His lungs also began to fill with fluid, Dr. Reynolds said.

A patient could drown in his own fluids when suffering from ARDS, the doctor said.

To give Officer Beck's lungs a chance to heal, Dr. Reynolds put him on the new lung machine. His blood was pumped into the machine, which removed carbon dioxide and put in oxygen before returning the blood to his body.

Meanwhile, the officer's kidneys began to fail, prompting doctors to put him on a kidney dialysis machine for two weeks.

After 18 days, doctors were ready on Dec. 8 to take Officer Beck off the lung machine. Then his heart failed.

"He basically died, to be blunt about it," Dr. Reynolds said.

Dr. Reynolds and others worked for seven to eight hours to bring Officer Beck back. They converted the lung machine to a heart-lung machine and used eight times the normal amount of adrenalin to stimulate the heart.

As they worked, Officer Beck's parents and police colleagues waited anxiously in a nearby room. The police chaplain was called.

"That was a difficult night," recalled Lt. Timothy Caslin, president of the county police union and a friend of Officer Beck from years ago when they both worked in the Parkville precinct. "A lot of prayers were said that night."

Something worked. Six days later, doctors took Officer Beck off the lung machine. Several weeks later, he came out of a medically induced coma and began to talk.

He was transferred nearly two weeks ago from Shock Trauma to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he will undergo physical therapy for weeks, perhaps months.

Dr. Reynolds said the officer's kidneys and lungs could recover fully. However, he may not regain full use of his damaged left shoulder.

His fellow K-9 officers hope he can soon have a reunion with his police dog, Ace. Though Officer Beck has declined to be interviewed, he has told Lieutenant Caslin that he is looking forward to retiring, and possibly starting a new career driving a truck.

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