Army veteran in Arizona passes away from COVID-19 complications while waiting for life-saving ECMO treatment

On Dec. 23, we reported on a 35-year-old Army veteran in Arizona who is in need of a life-saving treatment, as he battles COVID-19.

On Christmas Eve, a sad update for Brian Yazzie, as we have learned through Yazzie's sister, Victoria Arviso, that Yazzie has passed away.

According to Arviso, Yazzie's oxygen level went down, and his heart went into shock, and he subsequently passed away in a hospital room.

Family said time was running out for Yazzie

According to Yazzie's family members, he only had a few more days before his window of opportunity for ECMO treatment would have run out.

Yazzie, who served three tours with the Army, was not vaccinated against COVID-19, and was on a respirator at the VA Medical Center. He was on an ECMO waiting list for seven days, and originally, Dec. 23 was the last day Yazzie would be considered a qualified candidate for ECMO treatment, according to a doctor. The family was also told to prepare.

However, some good news came on the morning of Dec. 23.

"They extended his timeline. It's no longer going to be seven days. They're moving it to 10 days because he's been fighting," said Arviso. "He’s young and he’s strong. We just need to get him finally on an ECMO machine so his lungs can rest."

Currently, several hospitals in the Phoenix area are using ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machines to treat the most severe COVID cases, but all machines are being used, and there is a waiting list. Officials with Dignity Health and Banner Health have confirmed that their ECMO machines are at capacity.

"I wanted the medical staff to know that he has a life, and he’s not just someone sick on a bed," said Arviso.

Arizona flight team had stepped up to help Yazzie

Members of Yazzie's family say they have considered hospitals in other states, but doctors told them it would be too dangerous to move him far. In fact, a hospital in San Antonio, Texas that had ECMO machines available reached out to the family to help, but the family was told there was not enough staff to pick Yazzie up from Arizona.

"They said it was too dangerous," said Arviso. "It was too dangerous for him to be transported that far, and they weren’t sure for that long transport if he would hold up with his oxygen."

After our first story aired on Dec. 23, a Phoenix-based flight team offered their help to take Yazzie to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where an ECMO machine is available.

A staff member at the facility heard about Yazzie's story.

"Being a Phoenix native myself, I felt compelled to reach out. By reaching out, I could offer another chance at fighting and beating COVID," said Brennan Mattingly, a medic at Brooke Army Medical Center. "I would say that this is a very rare occurrance. definitely would qualify for a Christmas miracle for sure."

ECMO Explained

We have reported on the use of ECMO treatments during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Mayo Clinic, ECMO is used in critical care situations when a person's heart and lungs need help so that the person can heal.

"Blood is pumped outside of your body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in the body," a portion of Mayo Clinic's description of ECMO reads. "This method allows the blood to 'bypass' the heart and lungs, allowing these organs to rest and heal."

Besides COVID-19, Mayo Clinic officials say ECMO can also be used in certain heart and lung conditions. Mayo Clinic officials also say that ECMO does not treat or cure a disease, but cam help when a person's body temporarily cannot provide tissues with enough oxygen.

3,000+ cases reported in Arizona just days before Christmas

According to the Associated press, AZDHS officials reported 3,808 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 72 additional deaths on Dec. 24.

The state coronavirus dashboard’s latest figures released Friday bring the pandemic totals to 1,351,213 cases and 23,913 deaths. There were 2,440 patients hospitalized due to the virus as of Thursday.

According to AZDHS' COVID-19 dashboard, there are now 1,347,405 total cases in Arizona, and 23,841 total deaths.

MORE: Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers

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COVID-19 symptoms

Symptoms for coronavirus COVID-19 include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. These, of course, are similar to the common cold and flu. 

Expect a common cold to start out with a sore or scratchy throat, cough, runny and/or stuffy nose. Flu symptoms are more intense and usually come on suddenly, and can include a high fever. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear more slowly. They usually include fever, a dry cough and noticeable shortness of breath, according to the World Health Organization. A minority of cases develop pneumonia, and the disease is especially worrisome for the elderly and those with other medical problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or heart conditions.

RELATED: Is it the flu, a cold or COVID-19? Different viruses present similar symptoms

COVID-19 resources

CDC Website for COVID-19 (In Spanish/En Español)

AZDHS Website for COVID-19 (In Spanish/En Español)