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‘I stared death in the face’ — Army vet rejoices after grueling recovery from COVID-19

Durham VA Medical Center (Ildar Sagdejev/WikiCommons)

Months after Ollie Hendricks first felt an ache in his bones that kept him home from work, he was released from the hospital, a survivor of COVID-19.

The 58-year-old Army veteran waved his gloved hands in the air Friday morning as staff of the Durham VA Health Care System wheeled him into the parking lot, where he would be able to see his family in person for the first time since April.

Hendricks thanked everyone who had helped bring him back from the brink of death.

“Everybody that helped me, I want to tell you, I love you,” he said through a surgical mask.

Tears welled in his eyes as he told the crowd of people in scrubs and white doctor’s coats about the strength he drew from God and from his daughter, who he recalled telling him, “Dad, you’re going to be all right.”

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“Since then, I’ve been determined,” Hendricks said.

‘He truly has fought’

The effort Hendricks put into his rehabilitation was extraordinary, physicians and other caregivers said. He supplemented occupational therapy and physical therapy with exercises on his own.

After five weeks on a ventilator, he was weak. He couldn’t turn himself over in bed or hold a cell phone.

“He truly has fought,” said Dr. Christine Emler, the VA’s deputy chief of staff. “He gives 150% of his time and his effort to his rehab.”

Now, Hendricks said with pride, he can walk again.

He took a sterner tone when talking about the virus.

“This is serious,” he said. “Trust me, I know. I stared death in the face.”

He advised wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands.

Hendricks thinks he caught the virus at the food services company where he worked back in April. He said some co-workers had fallen ill.

He called out of work when his bones started aching.

A couple of days later, he woke up cold. He turned on an electric heater and soon was soaked in sweat, head to toe.

That’s when he knew.

He drove to the hospital and told the nurse, “I believe I have COVID-19.”

She took his temperature — 103.9, Hendricks recalled — and agreed with the self-diagnosis.

Medical staff in Henderson transferred Hendricks to the Durham VA.

At first, Hendricks just needed some supplementary oxygen, said Dr. Brian Schneider, hospitalist section chief at the VA. In addition to the fever, Hendricks had shortness of breath and a sore throat.

A turn for the worst

Like many COVID-19 patients, Schneider said, Hendricks quickly took a turn for the worst.

The VA transferred him across the street to Duke University Hospital, where he could receive remdesivir, at the time an investigational drug not widely available.

Receiving the drug could have profoundly affected Hendricks’s trajectory, Schneider said. “He was still critically ill for weeks, but he wasn’t a statistic,” he said.

A ventilator helped Hendricks breathe for five weeks, said Dr. Martha Sue Carraway, who oversees the health system’s intensive care unit.

Long recoveries are typical with COVID-19, she said, at least in part because a long intubation can lead to weakness and delirium.

But once Hendricks was conscious again, he devoted himself to recovering enough to go home.

Staff told him they expected he would have a six-week stay in the VA’s Community Living Center, a nursing home, Dr. Jack Twersky recalled. Hendricks told them he was determined to halve that.

“From that day, when he couldn’t even hold his head up, to now, we worked extremely hard,” said occupational therapist Alison Travers. “We worked with weights, and we worked on balance, strength, endurance, and it was one of the most rewarding patient interactions of my career.”

Hendricks was looking toward the future. He wanted to see his 10 grandkids. He wanted to go to work again, ride on his mower and DJ parties.

As he promised his caregivers, Hendricks will be home on the Fourth of July. He expects to be supervising the grill.

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© 2020 The News & Observer