Through the Window: A Family’s Journey with COVID Guided by Piedmont Walton Hospital

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Even weeks after being discharged from Piedmont Walton Hospital, Chris and Kelly Jernigan still get emotional talking about Chris’ recent battle with COVID. Chris, 44, considers himself to be a healthy person and certainly never expected to spend more than three weeks in the hospital fighting for his life.

In mid-July, Chris, who suffers from chronic heartburn, had a routine endoscopy procedure to check for acid reflux damage. He was under anesthesia for 20 to 25 minutes; the procedure went well and he spent the rest of the day relaxing at home. When he woke up the next morning, he was achy and had a sore throat which he thought was a result of the procedure he’d had the day before. So, he drank water and took over-the-counter medicines to address the symptoms. He was presenting at an upcoming board of directors meeting and “didn’t have time to be sick”.

However, Chris continued to feel ill throughout the weekend and on Wednesday, when he spiked a fever, he went to urgent care. He was given a rapid COVID test and tested positive. The doctor prescribed a Z-pack and sent him home to rest and recover. At the time, Chris wasn’t particularly worried. He and Kelly had known a few people to get COVID and those people had experienced mild to moderate symptoms. He had no reason to believe that his experience would be any different.

Over the next couple of days, his fever went up and down, climbing sometimes as high as 104. By Friday, Chris was dehydrated and experiencing GI issues. Kelly had started monitoring his oxygen levels, too, which were slowly, but steadily, dropping. Feeling terrible, Chris asked Kelly to take him to the hospital. They arrived at Piedmont Walton and were seen within 15 minutes.

The emergency department gave Chris fluids for dehydration and diagnosed him with pneumonia. At discharge, they instructed him to finish the Z-pack and to continue monitoring his oxygen levels. Come in if it drops below 90, they told him.

Two days later, Chris, who had become weak and was having shortness of breath, collapsed at home. Kelly called EMS and Chris was taken to Piedmont Walton Hospital with a high fever and oxygen levels that had plummeted into the 80s. The decision was made to admit Chris and the couple said their goodbyes.

“There was nothing good about the situation,” said Kelly. “As a spouse at home, not being able to be there, you feel so lost and confused.”

However, the family soon realized that Chris’ hospital room had a window that faced a courtyard. Kelly and their children came to the window two or three times a day to visit with Chris.

“That window became our lifeline,” said Kelly. “I was afraid that the nurses and doctors were going to scold me for coming to the window, but they told me to keep coming. They told me it was helping him and encouraging him.”

Over the next few days, Chris’ oxygen levels continued to drop and he was placed at 100 percent oxygen on a high-flow machine. The family prayed that he would not need a ventilator and their prayers were answered.

While in the hospital, the staff would bring Chris books, coffee, food, and just come by to pray with him. And the window continued to serve as a connection.

“I would hold my head up from the misery I was in, and I would see someone that I recognized from church outside of my window praying for me,” Chris remembered. “I swear I could physically feel the power of that prayer move through my body and I would think, ‘I’m going to beat this’, it would inspire me to do whatever I needed to do to get better.”

Slowly, Chris’ reliance on oxygen lessened and he was able to return to a “normal” oxygen machine. On day 16, he was discharged home with steroids, vitamins, and a medication for high blood pressure caused by COVID.

However, the nightmare was not over. At a follow-up appointment with his primary care physician, Chris explained to the doctor that he was dizzy, still short of breath, and barely able to walk across the bedroom to the bathroom. While he was no longer positive for COVID-19, the pneumonia was worsening. His doctor was troubled that his lungs were not healing the way they should and was concerned about blood clots. He told Chris to go back to the hospital for further evaluation. Again, Chris arrived at Piedmont Walton to be admitted and Chris and Kelly said their goodbyes.

“It was different that time around. The surge was really underway and there were so many more people,” said Chris. “The nurses looked tired and the hospital was full, but they took such great care of me.”

Chris was discharged, again, in late August, this time with antibiotics, steroids and oxygen. A month later, he still requires oxygen at night, does rehab a couple of times a week, and jokes that he’s gone from taking 22 pills a day to 12, which is progress.

“At first this journey was purely physical, just getting better physically, but it has turned into an incredibly emotional journey,” said Chris. “It was hard to be leaving the hospital and know that others will not, and that the staff there are still battling so hard.”

Today, Chris, Kelly, and their children are looking forward to getting back to normal family activities like going out for ice cream.

“We’ll never know why Chris got so sick or why he got to recover,” said Kelly. “We’re just go grateful to each person who prayed, each person who came to the window to offer encouragement, and for each member of the Piedmont Walton staff. The connections we made are what kept us going.”

Chris’ next goal is to get back to attending the family’s church.

“When I can walk into our church on a Sunday morning, that will be a great day,” said Chris.

SOURCE: Piedmont Healthcare