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Man who made national headlines for extraordinary recovery from COVID-19 to hike legendary Arizona mountain with doctors who saved his life


PHOENIX (Dec. 4, 2021) – An Arizona man, who made national headlines in May 2020 after nearly losing his life to COVID-19 and making an extraordinary recovery, is set to hike Camelback Mountain in Phoenix on Saturday, Dec. 4 with doctors who helped save his life. 

“It’s still hard for me, sometimes, to believe this happened to me. I’m young and without any past medical issues, and this virus nearly ended my life,” says Karl Viddal, MD, a Phoenix-area family physician and father-of-three who contracted COVID-19 in March 2020. “The nurses and doctors at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center are incredible. They literally saved my life and I am so grateful.”

Dr. Viddal’s goal of hiking Camelback Mountain is nothing short of remarkable given the critical respiratory complications he developed from COVID-19. One of the highest peaks in central Phoenix, Camelback Mountain attracts hikers from across the nation for its strenuous trails with steep grades and incredible views.  

In fact, doctors at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center have called his recovery ‘remarkable.’ They credit a last-resort, lifesaving intervention called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for his extraordinary outcome. Essentially, ECMO machines take over and do the work of failing lungs. 

“I didn’t know it then, but I learned later that at one point I faced nearly 100 percent mortality if not for the immediate and lifesaving ECMO intervention,” says Dr. Viddal. “They had to navigate through uncharted waters and if it wasn’t for their early and somewhat groundbreaking interventions, I wouldn’t have made it. They gave me a second chance, and I want to celebrate by hiking a mountain with them – to show others how much a COVID-19 survivor can achieve!”

Having spent 16 days on ECMO, 28 days in a medically induced coma, 34 days on a ventilator and a total of 55 days in the hospital fighting for his life, Dr. Viddal became the 32nd COVID-19 patient in the United States and the second in Arizona to be placed on ECMO therapy. He was also the state’s first COVID-19 ECMO-transport transfer case. 

“Karl’s story of perseverance and survival is a beacon of hope for all of those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Ross Bremner, MD, director of Norton Thoracic Institute which is part of Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. “It is gratifying to see he has returned to work and that he is continuing to push toward his goals. He’s become somewhat of an inspiration for some of our patients.”

Now a year into COVID-19 recovery, Dr. Viddal has challenged a number of his doctors, nurses and care team from Norton Thoracic Institute to join him in a symbolic hike up Camelback Mountain honoring both his recovery and the grueling, long-term battle many COVID-19 patients face. The hike up Camelback’s Echo Canyon Trail, which is one of the state’s most popular trailheads, is rated "highly difficult" for its steep, rugged terrain that climbs to an elevation of 2,700 feet within 2.5 miles.

“We are continually impressed by Karl’s bold personal fitness goals and have accepted his hiking challenge. One step further, we hope others will join the challenge in virtual form, safely and from a location of their choosing,” explains Dr. Bremner. “At Karl’s request, we’ve made this into a virtual fundraiser for Norton Thoracic Institute, and any donations made that are greater than the registration fee, I will match them dollar for dollar.”

Members of the public who wish to join the hike can register and raise donation funds online at https://supportstjosephs.rallybound.org/nti-virtual-hike. Hikers are also encouraged to share photos from their hike on social media using #Norton1000.

St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute is home to one of the largest and busiest lung transplant centers in the United States, and the only lung transplant program in Phoenix. Since opening the program in 2007, the team has performed more than 1,000 lung transplants and has achieved outstanding quality scores with shorter than average wait times for donor organs. As a result, their experts are some of the most experienced using ECMO for lung failure in the state. The team at Norton also has a national reputation of excellence in innovation when it comes to caring for patients with complex and severe thoracic and esophageal conditions. 

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Publish date: 

Saturday, December 04, 2021