One day in early 2021, Robert Domen was a fit U.S. Marine pursuing his love of running, and his fight that day was on the hilly terrain of the Canyon Crash course in Lumpkin.
Two months later, Domen was fighting for his life, as were his families, both loved ones and fellow Marines, from his commander of Marine Corps Logistics Command at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany to the chaplain to the very top at the Pentagon.
“In May of 2021, I got COVID,” Domen, a chief warrant officer who has served in the Corps for 32 years, said. “I was admitted here to Phoebe Putney (Memorial Hospital) in Albany. They put me on a ventilator. I was in a medically induced coma.”
At a time when COVID-19 was ravaging the country, and the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions were the worst affected, Domen seemed like an unlikely candidate for a severe bout with the disease.
“I had none of the underlying factors,” said the long-time Marine, who currently is stationed in Jacksonville, Fla. “I ran a half-marathon a couple of months before I got sick. In the Marine Corps, physical fitness is very important. That’s a very challenging course.
“There’s a lot of complacency (that COVID) won’t happen to me. It can be so much more than that, the mild illness, flu-like symptoms. COVID is a very devastating disease, and it’s very nondiscriminatory.”
As the days turned into weeks in the hospital, Domen’s family was told he was being placed on palliative care. His wife, Deborah, and his family were told to be prepared for the worst.
“Albany has a small hospital with limited resources,” Domen said. “At one point, probably about the third week of June, 2021, they told my wife to collect the family and be close because there was nothing else they could do.”
Phoebe was at the time very much on the front lines in one of the hardest-hit areas in the world in terms of the influx of COVID patients, and there was little doctors then could do to treat the disease. Domen said the hospital did everything within its means for him.
Deborah Domen never gave up, and neither did Maj. Gen. Joseph Shrader of Marine Corps Logistics Command, who turned over his command and retired earlier this month.
“We started working to see what had to be done,” said Shrader, who highlighted Domen, who was in the audience, during the recent change of command ceremony in Albany.
Shrader brought Domen’s plight to the attention to the very top of the chain to the admiral, who is surgeon general of the U.S. Navy.
“We had to try,” Shrader said. “I believe in miracles. He’s a miracle.”
Domen said that Shrader often downplays his role, but that he was instrumental in his getting a second chance at life on a team that included the commandant of the Corps on down.
“They were all instrumental in getting me to the University of Florida,” he said. “They assured her (Deborah) they would do everything they could to get me the care and treatment I needed. Gen. Shrader, he was the catalyst to make the entire thing happen.”
On June 30, Domen was admitted to the university hospital in Gainesville.
“Phoebe let them come in and do their work on me before they transferred me,” Domen said. “Phoebe welcomed them in and stabilized me to transfer me. That’s one of the things I can say kudos to Phoebe for opening up their facilities.”
A little less than three months later, on Sept. 26, doctors performed a double lung transplant, and two days later, after more than 150 days, Domen was removed from the ventilator.
Asked about the heroic efforts exerted on his part, Domen, who was set to retire on July 21 and said he expects to leave the service by the end of the year, agreed that he was the recipient of a miracle. The Corps has allowed Domen to remain on duty to get re-established and to receive the medical care he needs.
“I’ve thought about that so many times,” he said. “The Marine Corps really helps people. We take care of our own, and we never leave anybody behind on the field. Even though this wasn’t a battle zone, the Marines take care of everybody and leave nobody behind.
“You can’t put words to that. The effort was absolutely amazing. Marines, they take care of each other.”
For Deborah Domen, there is still a deep sense of gratitude for all who were part of the effort to save her husband, from those who offered prayers to the doctors who performed the surgery.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to do anything,” she said. “It really took a village to save a COVID patient. I thank every little piece of this puzzle. The puzzle wouldn’t have been complete without every little piece that went into it.
“It was a hard fight, but we fought it and we won. We’re together, and we beat it, and screw COVID.”
Both of the Domens encouraged individuals to share the gift of life through organ and blood donations, because the giver has the opportunity to save multiple lives and improve the quality of life of many others.
“I would request that people look into themselves and opt into organ donation the next time they get their license renewed,” he said. “The U.S. is not an opt-out country; you have to opt in. For every person that is eligible to donate, they can save five or six lives. I know it might not be an easy decision for many individuals.
“We do bless the donor and their family. They’re in our prayers daily. I received multiple units of blood in the hospital. There’s no substitute for life. Blood donations and organ donations are so critical.”
During a follow-up telephone interview on Saturday, Domen said he was giving his new lungs a workout later in the day at a 5K event in Jacksonville, even though he is not yet at his old form.
“I’ll be walking on most of it,” he said. “The whole point is to get out there and physically challenge myself so I will get back to jogging and running. Sometimes we physically have little lapses in confidence because you have one of those bad days. Hopefully by six, eight, 10 months down the road, I’ll be back to running half-marathons.”
The SNICKERS Marathon in Albany is one Domen has participated in previously, and the relatively flat course is one he would like to return to in the future.
After leaving the Corps, Domen, who joined the service at the age of 20, said he plans to work for a few more years.
“I’m a results-oriented individual,” he said. “I’m not quite ready to retire. I’ll be job hunting in the next six months. Even though I’ll miss the Marine Corps and the people, I’m going to move on to the next chapter.”
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