How my dad’s courageous journey through COVID-19 taught me to enjoy every moment

I consider my dad to be my best friend. I am able to tell him anything. I go to him for advice, even if it’s the tiniest problem. I can’t imagine what I would do without him because he is such a stable force in my life. He is my biggest advocate and I am incredibly lucky to have him as my dad.

This Father’s Day, in particular, I am extremely thankful to be celebrating. Because after a long battle with COVID-19, it is truly a miracle that my dad is alive today.

On March 22nd, 2020, I got a call from my dad that he was being admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Grapevine and had been tested for COVID-19. He wouldn’t get the result until the next day. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia and were keeping him overnight as a precaution.

This was the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, so no one knew much about the virus. The international music festival “SXSW” had just been canceled in Austin. Everyone thought that was the craziest thing to happen but little did we know it was about to get even crazier — especially for my family.

The next day, I took a personal day from work. The news of my dad being admitted to the hospital was looming over me and made it impossible to sleep. That morning, I received a call from my dad letting me know that he had tested positive for COVID-19. An hour later, I received a call from my supervisor informing me that the company was laying off 12 people, myself included. In the span of an hour, I had found out my dad had a serious virus and I didn’t have a job anymore. It was the worst day of my life. I was terrified.

I hope my story encourages people to take this pandemic seriously.

I tried to console myself, telling myself, “it’s just like a bad flu” and “he’ll be in the hospital for a few days and then be fine!” I was so incredibly wrong.

Later that day, the decision was made to put my dad on a ventilator. I didn’t know it then but that would be the last day I would talk to him for two months.

Before my dad went on a ventilator, I didn’t know exactly what “being on a ventilator” meant, and I think the same thing can be said for a lot of people. Although it’s a lifesaving machine, it’s also extremely difficult on one’s body. When you are put on a ventilator, you have to be sedated because tubes are placed down your throat to reach your lungs in order to pump oxygen in and out of them. It’s essentially a machine that breathes for you. The patient’s face is obstructed with the tubes going into their mouth, and sometimes an entire face mask is placed over their nose and mouth. It’s very harrowing seeing a loved one on a ventilator.

Unfortunately, this was the beginning of a long battle against COVID-19.

A little under two weeks in the ICU, and my dad wasn’t responding to medication. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had just approved the use of plasma transfusions for COVID-19 patients. With plasma transfusions, someone recovered from the virus donates their plasma and it’s then injected into a sick patient’s bloodstream. The hope is that the recovered person’s plasma will have the necessary antibodies to help the sick person’s body fight off the virus.

On April 3rd, Dad’s doctors got approval to try the plasma transfusion. The only problem was that since this was the very beginning of the pandemic in North Texas, there wasn’t a plasma bank built up yet. The requirements in order to donate plasma to a COVID-19 patient were that they must have tested positive for the coronavirus and must now be at least 28 days without symptoms and/or have since received a negative test result back.

So, I took to social media to get our message out there and find my dad a donor. My original Facebook post was shared 1,023 times. My tweet was retweeted 560 times and was viewed more than 110,385 times.

With a combination of social media shares and reaching out to friends, family and neighbors, we were able to compile a list of about 20 names of people who met the qualifications. We shared their information with my dad’s doctor and with the doctors at Carter Blood Care.

On April 8th, my Dad received a plasma transfusion! His body was still incredibly weak and he had critical scarring in his lungs.

The beginning of April till the end of the month was probably the point where my Dad was most critically ill. Some days, his ventilator settings would go down and he would seem to be heading in the right direction. The next day, his settings would spike up again. It was like taking one step forward and then two steps back.

I remember being so angry that this was happening to him. It felt like all hope was lost. At just 23, I had to start preparing to grieve the loss of my father. He didn’t deserve this. It was so unexpected — he was healthy with no underlying conditions!

But even through all of this and with the odds stacked against him, my dad and his healthcare team kept fighting.

Somewhere between April 18th and April 22nd, my Dad finally tested negative for COVID-19. This meant the virus had finally left his body, but the medical staff had to treat the damage it had left behind. His lungs had severe scarring and his muscles were devastatingly atrophied.

On April 23rd, he was moved to an acute care facility in Dallas to start rehab and to wean him off the ventilator. They had to do another COVID-19 test to ensure he was negative in order to start physical therapy. We were shocked when the test came back positive. This meant he had to be moved back to a quarantined room and wasn’t able to start much-needed physical therapy. The doctors told us it was probably a leftover dormant cell but they had to be sure. Thankfully, about five days later, his test came back negative and he was able to start physical therapy.

During his time in the ICU at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Grapevine, we were able to Facetime with him once a day on the hospital’s device. Since he was sedated, he couldn’t talk back or acknowledge us. This is what I meant when I said it is harrowing seeing your loved one on a ventilator.

After removing the tubes and inserting a trach tube, he was able to see us and vaguely acknowledge us over Facetime. At first, it was just head nods but a few days later, he was making facial expressions and even rolling his eyes! We knew he was getting better after seeing a sarcastic eye roll.

Eventually, he was able to move his mouth to form words and “talk” but no sound came out. I became very good at reading his lips to discern what he was trying to tell us. His mind was still there, sharp as a tack, able to remember his computer passwords and that he needed to pay bills. It was just his physical abilities he was going to have to work on to get back to normal.

On May 15th, my 24th birthday, he called at 7:30 a.m. I was still asleep, but I couldn’t be mad because he mouthed “Happy Birthday! I wanted to be the first one to tell you Happy Birthday!” I talked to him for a little while and then went back to sleep.

About an hour later, he called me back and this time actually said, “Happy Birthday!” It was so surprising hearing his voice for the first time in two months! It truly was the best birthday gift I could ever receive.

On May 17th, just one day shy of eight weeks on the ventilator, my Dad was finally taken off the ventilator and could breathe on his own again. He continued to be monitored at the acute care hospital and began physical therapy. He wasn’t able to move his legs or right arm at all.

Ten days later, he stood up (with the help of his therapists) for the first time in months.

He progressed little by little and on June 5th, he was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation center at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Grapevine. My mom and I got to meet him at the hospital in Dallas and follow the ambulance. This was the first time I had seen my dad in person in four months. We had friends, family and neighbors waiting outside of the hospital in Grapevine, socially distanced with face masks to cheer on his arrival in the ambulance. It was an incredibly emotional day but one of the happiest days my family had had in a very long time.

Dad has an estimated return home date of July 17th! He has at least three hours of physical and occupational therapy a day and is being helped by incredible nurses. The visitation policy allows for one visitor a day. It’s so incredible to be able to visit my dad a couple of times a week. Every day, he gives us a progress report on how he keeps breaking his daily step record.

According to the Tarrant County Department of Health, as of now, my dad is the sickest person to have survived COVID-19.

This is an incredibly personal story, yet one that is so important. This virus is serious. It attacks the body in more ways than just the respiratory system and unless you’ve personally experienced it, you won’t know the true pain it brings.

I hope my story encourages people to take this pandemic seriously. Wear a face mask and continue socially distancing. I don’t wish what I went through on anyone. The fact that the number of cases in Texas continues to rise makes me sad to know that more people will go through the trauma that my family experienced.

This was the hardest thing I have ever gone through. I’m thankful that I will be able to have more time with my dad here on Earth. He still has an extremely long and hard journey ahead of him, but the worst part is over.

If this experience has taught me anything, it is to be more present. I always worried about my future and what will happen as I got older. Now, I am trying my best to enjoy what I have right now with the people I have in my life, including my best friend, my dad.

This story was contributed by Katy Szendrey.

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How my dad’s courageous journey through COVID-19 taught me to enjoy every moment