It is difficult to remember what life was like in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, as the virus and its impact has been a focus of our daily lives since March.
In early March, concerns regarding the virus were mainly focused on those who had traveled internationally or to one of the few affected areas in the States. So the coronavirus was not an immediate concern when Craig Hillbrand of Grain Valley began experiencing a cough, congestion, and shortness of breath in early March.
Hillbrand visited his primary care physician who suspected pneumonia and put him on a Z-Pak (Azithromycin). When his condition worsened, Hillbrand headed to the emergency department at St. Mary’s Medical Center. Not one to seek medical help unless absolutely necessary, his wife and son knew it was serious when he told them he hoped he would be admitted.
“I’ve never had pneumonia, but I’ve had the flu a few times over the years. I just couldn’t go. The fever and the chest pain was like nothing else. It’s hard to explain because I wasn’t thinking too clear at the time,” Hillbrand said.
“They both knew for me to mention wanting to go into the hospital, something was really wrong.”
Hillbrand was found to have pneumonia, multiple pulmonary emboli (blood clots), and tested positive for COVID-19.
“They told us if we hadn't brought him in that Saturday, he likely would not have made it through the weekend,” Craig’s wife Beverly Garrison said.
Hillbrand’s condition was tenuous at best many times during his stay. After going into respiratory failure, he was intubated for 29 days. During that time, he had kidney failure requiring dialysis, sepsis, and required an operation to remove dead skin which still requires wound care. Hillbrand lost 50 pounds of muscle and barely recognized himself when he was finally able to see himself in a mirror.
“I remember them taking the tube and the feeding tube out. During that entire period, I had no idea what was going on. When I realized what was finally going on and where I was, my first thought was concern for my wife and son who had been exposed to me.”
Both Beverly and her son Ryan tested negative for the virus.
Garrison and the couple’s three children were not able to visit Hillbrand during his stay, and had to deal with the shock and try to prepare for his recovery and after care in the meantime.
“The first two weeks, I was kind of in shock. Our middle son, Ryan, kept me focused and kept me going. And when the doctor said to get our son from North Carolina home, it was a shock. We called and got him here, and got to wave (to Hillbrand) through the window. From there, you just have to stay informed and go on with things,” Garrison said.
“If they (St. Mary’s) had to do something out of the ordinary, they would call and kept me informed. They are just incredible there,” Garrison said.
After moving into the rehab unit, Craig worked hard with the help of therapists to regain his strength. Used to his independence, it has been an adjustment to have to depend on others for help.
“They had alarms on beds, so if you get out, the alarm goes off. Well, I had a problem with that,” Hillbrand joked and his wife laughed in appreciation. “I got in trouble a few times. I’ve been independent forever, and I hated to rely on someone else.”
Hillbrand gives endless praise to the physicians, nurses, therapists and staff who kept him going and helped him fight.
“Just the overall professionalism and the concern they showed me was incredible.”
“I told my therapists and doctors, ‘If I’m gonna make it, I wanna walk out of here.’ They made it happen.”
Hillbrand walked out of St. Mary’s on May 22nd with the aid of a walker and the applause of St. Mary’s staff and the theme to the movie Rocky in the background. In a social media post, St. Mary’s Medical Center called Hillbrand a “walking miracle”.
Hillbrand continues to regain strength and the ability to be independent, but the after effects of the virus make recovery slower than he would like.
“It’s hard to take. I’ve been active and independent forever. I worked 40 years, was in the Navy. I thought maybe I’d be back to work in August. But I’m having to realize that my body’s not there yet. You have to mentally get square with what you still have to go through to get back.”
“There’s also survivor guilt with this as well that’s harder than anything. You see the stories of 30 year-olds getting the virus, going into the hospital for a week and dying. It is hard to take.”
“He’s still having emotional ups and downs and anxiety when going out, and it’s understandable,” Garrison said.
“The first time we ate at a restaurant, he had anxiety about going in. Nobody had masks on, and you could just tell by the look on his face, ‘OK, we need to leave now’,”
“I don’t think people are taking it seriously enough. People are saying, ‘I don’t want to be told I have to wear a mask. Well, OK. But that’s a pretty simple thing compared to what you might have to deal with. The statistics are showing that younger people are increasingly being diagnosed with it. You hear someone say, ‘I’m young, I’ll get through it.’ Well, you’d better have a strong body and good insurance, and even then, it can still claim you,” Hillbrand said.
“People need to take this seriously. It affects not just you, but everyone around you,” Garrison said.
“A good support system, both family and medical staff, has been essential, and we were lucky to have good health coverage. I can see where it can bankrupt a family. We’ve seen the bills.”
“But I feel really lucky. I’m capable of doing everything at home now, and I’m getting stronger,” Hillbrand said.
“And we’re all happy to have him home,” Garrison said.