Zei Uwadia is making history at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. The 16-year-old has been on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, for more than 120 days, a record—the average patient is on ECMO, a form of life support that pumps blood out of the heart, removes carbon dioxide, adds oxygen, and pumps it back in, for just 21 days. But Zei has also set another, better record: She's the first patient at the hospital ever to walk while on life support, the Kansas City Star reports. The teen's journey began with unexplained back pain; suspecting a kidney infection, doctors put her on the antibiotic Bactrim. What happened next is not clear: Whether it was a reaction to Bactrim, a genetic lung condition (her younger sister has one), or something else as yet unrevealed by testing, one day soon after Zei started having trouble breathing. Her lung function continued to worsen until the ECMO became necessary.
One of Zei's doctors told her mother, Brie Kerschen, "My vision for her is for her to be sitting up on the side of the bed, texting her friends, getting on the computer," because he knew her chances of recovery would be better if she were alert and mobile, rather than sedated. One of the first signs that Zei would go even further than doctors expected was the day she asked for and ate tacos—most patients on ECMO are fed through a feeding tube or eat only soft foods, but not Zei. Still, no one expected her to walk. Her doctors wanted her to try getting into a chair or even standing, but she insisted on walking and eventually they let her. Since then, she's even lifted weights. A GoFundMe campaign for the family details her progress, both with walking and with answers—and continued questions—about her health. Her lung function is improving, and Kerschen tells CNN, "I really am convinced that [walking] saved her life, and not to be dramatic, but I think the fact that she's able to walk is why she's still here." (A mysterious illness has paralyzed kids across the US.)