Rochelle native Hamburg reflects on near-fatal COVID-19 fight

21-year-old braved ventilator, ECMO machine over 4 months

Jeff Helfrich
Posted 2/21/22

21-year-old Rochelle native Carlie Hamburg recently returned home after a four-month battle with COVID-19 that included surviving time on a ventilator and ECMo machine.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Rochelle native Hamburg reflects on near-fatal COVID-19 fight

21-year-old braved ventilator, ECMO machine over 4 months


ROCHELLE — Carlie Hamburg and her family celebrated Thanksgiving during mid-February.

That’s because from Sept. 29, 2021 until Jan. 28, the Rochelle native was in hospitals and a rehabilitation facility battling and recovering from COVID-19. 

Hamburg’s story starts with her wedding. On Sept. 18, the 21-year-old married her husband, Brandon. The couple lives in Dixon. On Sept. 24, she went to work and left early because she felt sick. Carlie went to the emergency room that night but was sent home and told to take Tylenol. 

Five days later without improvement, Carlie called her mother, Tracy Elder, who works at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb. She went to the emergency room there and her oxygen levels were in the 50s. She doesn’t remember much after that. 

“She went straight to the ICU from there,” Elder said. “We tried really hard to keep her off the ventilator because we didn't want to put her on one. She made it for a week. We had a big discussion about it. We had to put her on the ventilator and she still wasn't making it on the highest settings. She still wasn't going to make it.”

On Oct. 8, Carlie was flown by helicopter to Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and put on an ECMO machine, which takes blood out of a patient’s body and puts oxygen in it and takes out carbon dioxide before putting it back into the body. That’s how Carlie survived until Christmas Day. 

On Dec. 25, Carlie was taken off the machine and able to breathe on her own. Later on, she went to Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton for three weeks before coming home.

Carlie and her family dealt with a number of complications along the way. She had internal bleeding and at one point was given 11 units of blood in two days. At another point, her heart stopped, and she had to be brought back with CPR. 

Carlie’s father, Bruce Elder, called her battle with COVID-19 a roller coaster ride and said he wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy. 

“The last two months were brutal,” Bruce said. “I'd get a call at work from Tracy with such good news and I was running around happy and we were all in a good mood. 12 hours later I'd be back at work and get a call and be running out the door bawling. It was crazy. The story is long and brutal. I'd never want to do it again. Ever.”

Since coming home, Carlie said she’s doing good for the most part. She currently uses oxygen and a wheelchair and walker while she gets her strength back. She did suffer a fall that will require surgery on her knee in the future when she’s healthy enough to become a surgical candidate again. That will all come in time. 

“Compared to what we've already done, my knee is nothing,” Carlie said. 

Tracy finds it hard to put what her daughter’s fight was like into words. She found it difficult having limited contact with Carlie while she was in the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions. When she was taken to Central DuPage in the helicopter, doctors were unsure if she’d even make it through the flight. And when she did, Tracy and the rest of the family were unable to see her for a time. 

“We had to sit at home wondering what she was going through and if she was going to make it,” Tracy said. “I didn't ever want her to think we had deserted her. Because she was scared and she wasn't in her right mind. That was the worst torture, not being able to see her and hold her hand and tell her it was going to be okay.”

“The look on her face the first day they let us into the hospital to see her, she was out of it but she knew exactly who we were,” Bruce said. “She was mad we couldn't go into the room. She wanted to hold our hands. We asked the nurse if she would hold her hand and maybe she would think it was us. She wasn't having it. She knew it wasn't us. It was hard."

Tracy said the ordeal put life in perspective and showed what’s important. Bruce believes it brought the family a lot closer. Their daughter agrees. 

“We've gotten close,” Carlie said. “And we were already a close family before this. Sometimes I think that's why this all happened.”

Carlie and Brandon never got a chance to go on their honeymoon, but hope to when Carlie is able. Before September, the couple were always the type to take a trip and do what they wanted in life. Now after a near-death experience, they plan to do even more of that once they’re able. 

Carlie spoke of Brandon’s support for her through her battle with COVID-19 and since. Her parents are brought peace by the fact that Brandon is with her. 

“I would be a nervous wreck if I didn't know he was taking care of her and making sure she's taking her medicine and doesn't fall and that she's comfortable,” Tracy said. “Brandon has 150 percent stood by her and had her back the whole time and never wavered. As parents, that's huge because I have to trust that she's okay and I do. Brandon is a very quiet strength for her. They're definitely getting the 'in sickness' part of their vows out of the way.”

Brandon has had to deal with COVID-19 on another front. His father is currently in the hospital on a ventilator fighting it. He’s still been able to find a silver lining.

“Even though there are a lot of things that have happened, I'm still happy my dad is here and I can go see him,” Brandon said. “And I'm grateful that Carlie is still here.”

As hard as it was having her family’s visits limited while in the hospital due to the pandemic, Carlie said she got lucky with the healthcare workers that took care of her. There were times when all she wanted to do was hold somebody’s hand, and Carlie’s nurses did that for her. For so long that they had to beg her to get up to go to the bathroom.

The nurses didn’t just take care of Carlie. When Bruce would call looking for information, they’d always fill him in on everything that was going on. He was never put on hold. When Tracy would leave the hospital room because she didn’t want to cry in front of her daughter, a nurse would often follow her out and hug her and tell her it was going to be OK. 

“I still talk to the nurses to this day,” Carlie said. “They turned into family for me. I was close to my doctor and my rehab nurses.”

Carlie and her family gathered at T-Byrd Lanes in Rochelle last week, a place her family frequents. One after another, patrons approached her and hugged her and told her how glad they were that she was doing better.

Bruce doesn’t think Carlie yet realizes the thousands of people that showed support and prayed for her during her fight. 

“We're very thankful,” Bruce said. “People raised a lot of money for us. “There have been so many people that came together to help us when we needed it. Bracelets and stickers that say Carlie Strong were made. I see them all over the place. It's just awesome. We have a good town and community of people and a lot of people that love Carlie.”

Bruce did a Christmas card drive for Carlie, which yielded a big stack that she was finally able to open in recent weeks. An online fundraiser was started that raised thousands of dollars and updated the community on her progress. 

“The community that surrounds us came together and held us up when we needed it the most,” Tracy said. “Not even just financially. Emotionally too.”

Carlie’s mother recalled one moment during her fight after she was put on a ventilator. Tracy realized that she might never hear Carlie talk again. She broke down at her home and cried.

“The first time they took that ventilator out and she talked, it was huge because I was so scared it would never happen again. I get up every day, and the first thing out of my mouth is thanking God for another day for Carlie. Another day I get to talk to her.”

Carlie has found it hard to come to terms with how COVID-19 impacted her at such a young age. She didn’t think she’d spend half of her 21st year laying in a hospital bed. 

“There are two ways I looked at it,” Carlie said. “I could have either come home angry hating the world, or I could come home and say I made it and I was okay and be grateful. Even on the mornings that I wake up at 5:30 a.m., I thank God I'm seeing the sun again. Because there were a lot of days when I didn't think that was going to happen again.”

Bruce recalls wishing “a thousand times” that it was him in the hospital bed instead of his daughter. But he doesn’t believe he would have made it through the fight the way she did. 

One of the moments that sticks in his memory the most was seeing Carlie get up out of bed for the first time. 

“She didn't go far, but just to see her out of the bed was huge,” Bruce said. “We're just glad she's sitting here and we can talk to her. We got to have Thanksgiving. We're going to have Christmas. We haven't decided on that yet. But we'll do it eventually.”