ALAMOSA — “Walking miracle.” “Strong woman.”
Those were the nicknames given to Rebecca Coleman by some of the medical staff at San Luis Valley Health when, on June 15, she was finally discharged. There is a good reason for those nicknames, for Rebecca just came out of a 47-day stretch in the hospital, three weeks of which were in the ICU.
Back in late April, Rebecca, 70, began feeling a little short of breath. At that time, both she and her husband, Lynn, had chosen to forego the vaccine. They had been careful, had followed all the guidelines and figured they were safe -- at least safe enough to wait on getting the vaccine until it had been around longer, just in case bad side effects developed. And, as far as they knew, they had not been exposed.
When she first started feeling badly, Covid was not the first thing on Rebecca’s mind. But when it became increasingly difficult to breathe, she thought it would be wise to go to the doctor. He examined her, tested her for the virus and then sent her home. But when Lynn put a pulse oximeter on her finger and it showed she only had an oxygen saturation level in the mid-50s (anything below 90 is cause for concern), he took her to the emergency room. She was promptly transferred by ambulance to the hospital where she went straight into ICU.
Rebecca was diagnosed with Covid related pneumonia that had cut her breathing capacity, without assistance, to around 20%. “The ex-rays showed my lungs were just full of pneumonia,” she says, ”and there was just one part of them at the top that was clear.” She describes the experience as being exhausting. Even with assistance, Rebecca said she was constantly “breathing like a dog panting after a hard run.”
The doctors wanted to put her on a ventilator, but she refused. “I knew if I let them put me on a ventilator, I wasn’t going to make it. And I told them I’m not ready to die.” Rebecca had a DNR on file – a form that instructs medical staff “Do Not Resuscitate” in the event of heart failure that patients typically fill out or decline upon admission. “I told them to tear up the DNR. I’m not going anywhere but home.”
With a ventilator out of the question, Rebecca was put on a bi-pap instead, where air is sent through a tube in a mask put over a patient’s face. The bi-pap provided Rebecca with the oxygen she needed, but breathing was still an enormous struggle with no relief. “I was afraid to fall asleep,” she says. “I was afraid something might happen and they’d put me on a ventilator or something even worse than that.” For three straight days, Rebecca didn’t sleep, only falling asleep when her body just couldn’t stay awake any longer.
For the next three weeks, Rebecca was in ICU, unable to see her husband, Lynn, who had come down with Covid himself or anyone else in her family, communicating only by phone and, even then, usually via texting.
The nights were the worst, but she said the SLV Health staff made all the difference. “I had wonderful nurses,” she says, citing one especially helpful nurse named Rikki. “She’d come into my room at night and sit down next to my bed and just talk to me.” Another nurse named Brandon was also of enormous help. “Brandon was the day nurse and he’d squat down next to the bed and we’d talk. He’d been a medic in the military for eight years and decided he wanted to be a nurse. He was wonderful, too. The nurses – they became like family.” Rebecca also mentions the housekeeping staff that cleaned her room and the CNA gave her sponge baths. “All of them took very good care of me.”
When her condition began to improve, Rebecca was transferred to a different room with a ventilation system that allowed her to have visitors. “When I told [Lynn] they were transferring me out of ICU and he could come visit, he ran right home, cleaned up and got a haircut before he came to see me. I was very happy to see him.”
After a period of time, Rebecca was transferred to a different room, one with windows that looked out on a beautiful view of the mountains. That, she says, made all the difference, and she immediately began to improve. Once her condition had stabilized and her oxygen was up to a level that allowed it, she started receiving physical therapy. “Before I got sick, I’d get up in the morning and clean house and then I’d go outside and work in the garden. I’d do all of that without even thinking about it. But when I first got up after Covid, my legs were so shaky I could barely make it to a chair just a few feet away.”
After 47 days, Rebecca was finally discharged to go home. As she was wheeled down the hallway to leave, hospital staff were lined up on either side of the hallway, cheering for her, calling her “strong woman” and calling her recovery a miracle.
There is no doubt that Covid ravaged Rebecca’s body. She lost more than 30 pounds, weight that is only slowly coming back on. She gets winded when speaking for any length of time and is still on oxygen, which, her doctor says, she will be slowly weaned off of using. And she has chairs positioned all over the house for when she needs to stop and rest. But she is determined to get back to where she was before she got sick, a journey that she knows she can only take one day at a time.
As far as the SLV Health staff, Rebecca wants people to know “They are wonderful, very caring people who loved me to death…I couldn’t ask for a better group and I’ll never go to any other hospital but SLV Health.”
As far as advice she has for others, Rebecca stops for a moment, trying to catch her breath for a moment. “I would tell them to take this virus seriously, I’m a strong willed woman with a strong faith, and it almost took my life. I know I’m going to get the vaccine . I have to wait until the end of July, but, as soon as they’ll let me, I plan on getting the vaccine. And others should do the same.”