September 3, 2021
TV footage of the mob swarming the U.S. Capitol was the first thing Darlene Gray saw as she awakened, dazed and disoriented, in January 2021. The Point Pleasant, New Jersey, woman remembered her oxygen levels plummeting after testing positive for COVID-19 in November but had no idea she’d spent the last two months on a ventilator, her life saved by tenacious treatment for COVID-19 at Ocean Medical Center.
“It was hard to decipher what was really happening and if I was dreaming,” recalls the drug store pharmacist. “I kept wondering, ‘What’s going on? What did I miss?’ It was very hard to take it all in. It still is.”
Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and her only son’s 21st birthday had all passed as Darlene lay unconscious week after week, her survival hanging in the balance. After myriad treatments that included antibiotics, steroids, convalescent plasma and the antiviral drug remdesivir, she woke up not only to mayhem on TV but a profoundly weakened body that would continue to test her as she clawed her way back to health through rehabilitative care at Johnson Rehabilitation Institute.
“I was a healthy 53-year-old. I thought I’d go to the hospital, get oxygen and be OK,” says Darlene, whose only risk factor for severe COVID-19 was asthma. “Never in a million years did I think I’d go through what I went through.”
Intense Rehabilitation Process
Darlene’s first signs of the coronavirus were textbook: fever, cough and fatigue. She visited a local urgent care center for a COVID-19 test, but days later went to Ocean when her blood oxygen levels dipped into the 80-percent range.
Doctors tried high-flow oxygen, but it wasn’t a match for a now-raging case of pneumonia that left Darlene gasping. She doesn’t remember being connected to the ventilator or the surgeries she underwent to insert a tracheostomy tube in her neck and feeding tube in her stomach.
“My family thought I wasn’t going to make it,” she says. “When I woke up, I started receiving texts from everyone saying they were very grateful I was alive.”
Lifted by emotional support, Darlene still didn’t realize just how badly her strength had deteriorated and was anxious to recover. But she couldn’t even sit up, much less walk or use the bathroom.
“She really hadn’t been out of bed in two months when she came to us, and that’s something major to overcome,” says physiatrist Casey Schoenlank, M.D., who led Darlene’s rehabilitation care. “Recovering COVID-19 patients generally start off requiring a lot of assistance, but most of the time we’re pleasantly surprised how they progress.”
Darlene relied on her steely nature to push past her fears. Working with physical and occupational therapists for hours each day, she walked ever-further distances and relearned how to handle basic tasks such as showering and dressing. Darlene’s feeding tube was removed after she was able to eat more normally, a process aided by speech therapists targeting her swallowing abilities. Her reliance on supplemental oxygen also diminished.
“The nurses were fantastic and went above and beyond,” she says. “And I knew I had a family at home and had to work through everything to get back to where I was.”
Boosted by her rehabilitation team, Darlene’s hard work helped shave off a week from doctors’ initial predictions of a month-long stay at Johnson Rehabilitation Institute. Three months after her COVID-19 ordeal began, she was finally able to go home.
“She really progressed well and was her own biggest proponent in getting home more quickly, with a lot of encouragement from the staff here,” Dr. Schoenlank explains. “For someone who was completely healthy before they got sick with COVID-19, this kind of ordeal is life-changing. You have to learn how to walk again, perform your own hygiene and even put on your own shoes.”
Now able to walk two miles at a time, Darlene seeks regular follow-up care with a pulmonologist and physiatrist. She still gets out of breath easily, but no longer depends on extra oxygen or on 24-7 support at home from her significant other or son, whom she gratefully credits for her marked improvement.
“My pulmonologist said to me, ‘You don’t need a lottery ticket—you already won!’” she laughs.
Now Darlene is eyeing going back to her job as a pharmacist and spending more time with her girlfriends. She also hopes to plan a trip to Iceland with her son.
“I’m definitely more grateful for each day and this extra time I’ve been allowed,” she says. “I do not take things for granted. I want to get back to work where I’m helping people again. I enjoy when customers come in and leave with a smile.”
Next Steps & Resources:
- Meet our source: Casey Schoenlank, M.D. To make an appointment with Dr. Schoenlank or a doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.
- Can COVID-19 cause back pain?
- 9 common myths about physical therapy
The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.