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From sick newborn to aspiring med student; Baltimore woman's life comes full circle at Johns Hopkins

Ariel Egbunine, second from left, finds herself back in the ECMO unit at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center 22 years later after surviving severe cardio-respiratory failure as a newborn. With her, from left, critical care specialists Melania Bembea, Ivor Berkowitz and Sapna Kudchadkar.
Posted at 10:12 AM, Oct 14, 2021

BALTIMORE — Ever since she was a newborn fighting for her life, one Baltimore woman has made it her mission to help others.

Now 22-years-old, Ariel Obioma Egbunine often talks about the time she was just hours old, rushed to the Johns Hopkins PICU.

At the time, Dr. Ivor Berkowitz decided to treat Ariel with Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO), a relatively new lifesaving therapy for babies in severe cardiorespiratory failure.

Basically, ECMO allows blood to be pumped outside of the body into a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide, which in turn sends oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in the body.

After just 45 minutes, Dr. Berkowitz noticed the baby who once was gasping for air was stable and well-oxygenated.

Ariel wasn't out of the woods yet, she remained hospitalized for several days, followed by a two-plus month stay at the Kennedy Krieger Institute to treat neurocognitive deficits, which led to difficulties with feeding and crawling.

As she grew into her teens, Ariel wanted to learn more about her medical history.

Ariel's curiosity led her to write a middle school graduation paper and speech about her ECMO experience.

Later at the PICU’s annual holiday party, Ariel got the chance to reunite with the physician who helped save her life.

Ariel and Dr. Berkowitz would go on to discuss another project that delved into whether ECMO was a proven therapy for neonates, children and adults with respiratory failure.

The two then decided to meet weekly. Ariel was able to build that into a year-long internship allowing her to personally observe other PICU patients on ECMO.

Ariel wasn't the only one impacted by the experience, Berkowitz was too, so much that he wrote an article about it on the physician website CLOSLER.

The internship left Ariel wanting to become a pediatric critical care specialist.

Following senior year, Ariel was accepted into the STEM BUILD (building infrastructure leading to diversity) program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she learned the process of transforming scientific knowledge into clinical application.

After graduating as a biochemistry and molecular biology major, it was time to apply for medical schools.

Around that same time it just so happened that Johns Hopkins was looking for a research coordinator in their division of pediatric anesthesia and critical care .

Although it was an unusual opportunity for a recent college graduate, Ariel's time shadowing Berkowitz in the PICU made her the right fit for the job.

Now as she awaits acceptance to her choice of medical school, Ariel's life has come full circle.

She currently assists Johns Hopkins critical care specialists in studies on sepsis and biomarkers of brain injury in critically ill children on ECMO.