One COVID-19 patient’s long road to recovery after coming off a ventilator

When Mike Stephens holds up his gait belt, you can see that he’s been through a lot. He can look at the dates written on the belt with Sharpie and walk you through every milestone in his battle with COVID-19.

It all began one September morning when he wasn’t feeling well and knew something wasn’t quite right. The next day — Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021 — Stephens tested positive for COVID-19. By the following Friday, his life changed in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

“I was in the shower and started coughing up this brown stuff and blood,” he said. “I got out and was standing there shaving when I started to get very lightheaded, so I thought, ‘I’m going to go lay down.’ When I came to, I’d only made it halfway in the bed.”

Stephens was hoping that he’d start to feel better over the weekend, but when he took a shower that Saturday, the coughing began again and he knew it was time to get help. He couldn’t even walk from the bathroom to the bedroom without being out of breath.

“I live by myself, so I’d called 911 earlier and told them what was going on. I wanted them to know what they were walking into if they got a call from my address,” he explained.

The paramedics came, and they rushed Stephens to the emergency department at LMH Health.

Terrifying days

The trip to the emergency department was a blur. Stephens said he remembered his doctor being helpful and efficient, but it wasn’t until that evening that people came more into focus. He remembers his nurse, Heather, who shares the same name as his girlfriend’s daughter. He also remembers the respiratory therapist who wanted him placed on a floor where she could monitor him more closely.

Stephens’ son called to talk with him the next day. When he asked how Stephens was doing, the answer was blunt. He was doing everything he could to stay off the ventilator because if he was intubated, there was a good chance that he might not make it.

Dr. Krishna Rangarajan, a pulmonologist with Lawrence Pulmonary Specialists, saw Stephens for the first time a couple of days later.

“He was on BiPAP, which is a noninvasive ventilator, and required a lot of oxygen,” Rangarajan said. “He got pretty sick pretty quickly.”

Rangarajan recalled that Stephens became more anxious and short of breath as his condition began to deteriorate more rapidly a few days later. It was at that point that Rangarajan delivered some harrowing news: Stephens was being put on a ventilator.

“Once you go on the vent, it’s the end. You saw on TV that all these people were dying,” Stephens said. “I remember my last prayer — it was very short and sweet. ‘God, please forgive me of my sins and through your grace and mercy, accept me into heaven.'”

The team had some trouble with the intubation. Stephens’ oxygen saturation dropped to a dangerously low level when one of his lungs partially collapsed. Rangarajan and Dr. Ralph Park were able to place a chest tube and reinflate it.

Back into the light

Over the next few days, two more pulmonologists — Dr. Amanda Gudgell and Dr. Rashid Riaz — and a number of other providers cycled through to help care for Stephens. After two weeks, the team determined that the ventilator had done its job. Stephens was well enough to start breathing on his own again.

“I’ll never forget Dr. Gudgell. When they brought me off the vent, I just heard a woman’s voice in my ear, and it was over and over,” Stephens said. “I finally got to where I could acknowledge it and know she was there with me.

“I don’t know where she had her phone, but she grabbed it and started to video chat with my brother to tell him I was awake. ‘Yes, he’s here. He’s alive. He’s alive.'”

His family felt fear every time the hospital called. They knew that it might not have been the call they had been praying for.

“When I saw it was the nurse calling, I’d grab my phone and take it outside before I’d answer it,” said Laurie Bratton, Stephens’ girlfriend. “I didn’t know if that call was going to be the one to tell me that it was his death day.”

It wasn’t Stephens’ time to go. This was the beginning of the battle for the rest of his life.

The work begins

Coming off a ventilator isn’t an easy task. Patients don’t spring up and head home a couple of days later. It’s a long, lonely road to recovery.

“When I first came off the vent, I just asked why? Why did I live? I couldn’t even lift my arm, couldn’t pick up my cell phone or give myself a drink of water,” Stephens said. “I didn’t have any strength and couldn’t even push the button to call the nurse.”

During his recovery, Stephens was quarantined in his hospital room. Staff and nurses came in and out throughout the day, but they could only stay for short periods of time. Stephens was alone with his thoughts for much of the day. He tried to make sense of it all and did a lot of praying.

“I had to learn how to do everything, the simplest of tasks, all over again. Everything I took for granted — brushing my teeth, bathing myself and getting dressed — and I was struggling,” he said. “Dr. Gudgell came in and said, ‘Mike, you’ve got to pull this around. You’re going to start getting better.’ And that’s what I did.”

One of the people who helped Stephens during those low times was LMH Health’s spiritual care manager, Robin Colerick-Shinkle. When Stephens was able to come out of COVID isolation, she would visit his room and sit for a long time just to talk.

“In an environment that is so fast and busy, we can easily forget how powerful it is to sit with someone, listen to their story and just be present to all they are experiencing and have been through. There is a simple healing in being heard and being known,” she said. “The experience of COVID can be life-changing, and we need someone to sit with us and help us begin processing the many layers of feelings and fears, unpacking what all of this means. For Mike, it was a journey of faith, and he could see God’s faithful and abiding presence with him and his family through every day of his healing.” 

Re-learning the simple things

Once he was strong enough, Stephens was transferred to a Kansas City-area hospital to begin the rehab process. The unknown was terrifying. Would he be able to walk again? How much of what he was able to do before would come back? Rangarajan was confident that Stephens would land on his feet.

“Mike was one of the sickest COVID patients that we’ve had who we’ve been able to take off the ventilator,” Rangarajan said. “I saw Mike right before he left for rehab. He looked so much better — so jovial and so motivated.”

Rehab helped Stephens re-learn how to do routine tasks like walking, bathing and brushing his teeth all over again. When the therapist came in to do an assessment on his first day, Stephens was able to walk 25 feet using a walker. Soon after, he was able to do 35 feet, and he quickly was making progress in 100-foot increments.

When Stephens transferred to the rehab facility, he told the LMH Health staff that he’d be back. He knew he wanted to return to thank the doctors, nurses and staff for saving his life.

Kelli Averill was one of the ICU nurses who cared for Stephens at LMH. Caring for patients with COVID had been difficult. Many times, she’d seen patients lose their battle against the virus. Sometimes it felt like no matter what she did, patients continued to feel miserable. So when Stephens walked back on the unit, she was overwhelmed.

“I was immediately emotional,” Averill said. “Getting to see Mike up and walking and on room air — wow, it was special. I’m so happy that he’s doing so well. It made my heart swell that he took the time to come back to see us and thank us for the care we gave him.”

Looking back

Since Stephens’ release from rehab, he isn’t quite back to normal, but he’s continued to get stronger and stronger. He still enjoys hunting, fishing and doing anything outside, and he returned to his job as a truck driver in early July.

One thing Stephens emphasizes to people who hear his story is the importance of getting the COVID vaccine and recommended boosters. He had received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine about eight months before his hospitalization. Unfortunately, the vaccine’s effectiveness had waned by the time he caught the virus.

“The shots don’t stop you from getting it, but it stops you from ending up in the hospital or from staying there for an extended time,” Stephens said. “If you don’t get your shots and don’t believe in COVID, you’re going to die a believer.”

— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.


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