When Dr Chris Shaffer, a pulmonologist at Penn State Health, met Brian shortly after he was hospitalized, he needed a lot of oxygen to survive. Brian had first gone to the cardiovascular unit on the third floor. Another doctor wanted to put him on a ventilator, but Brian opposed the idea. He thought of his mother and his opposition to prolonging life when it is already too late. People can only go so far, he thought.
Not that that’s true for ventilators: During the pandemic, the devices saved countless lives. “But I felt like he was nervous,” Shaffer said. “He didn’t say it, but I noticed.”
Shaffer believed Brian would be able to breathe without the vent and opted to take him to intensive care where doctors could keep him on oxygen using bipap non-invasive ventilation alternating with a nasal ventilator and monitor his progress.
Christmas has come and gone. Brian wasn’t there. Hospital policy to protect Mary did not allow her to visit him. She felt desperate.
At the beginning of his stay, Brian needed a letter explaining his absence from work. Mary couldn’t visit and she was worried about how she would make it happen. Then one day, she got a knock on her door. Shaffer introduced himself and handed him the letter. “I never expected service like that,” he later wrote to the hospital.
Finally, the day after Christmas, he received a phone call telling him that the rules had changed and that he could see him. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.
Then the days and weeks began to pile up like snowdrifts. Mary got to know the people at the security desk and the staff. She and Brian saw a hospital filled beyond capacity with the pandemic. Hospital employees were seen passing empty stretchers down the hall. They returned with them carrying body bags, followed by health workers dealing with the loss.
“The nurses were the best in that hospital,” Brian said. “Because I was there so long, they would come in and talk just to visit. Many times, they would say how bad it was [earlier in the pandemic]. They sat with patients as they died. And the family couldn’t even get in to see them. It was difficult.”
While he was still in the ICU, firefighters from Northeast Fire and Rescue and other emergency services organized a parade in front of the hospital to lift his spirits. They took him to a window so he could watch. On one hand, Brian was grateful for the gesture. On the other hand, he wondered if he would ever ride with them again.
Day after day
Months passed, and the hospital moved Brian from the second-floor cardiovascular intensive care unit to the hospital’s cardiovascular unit. During the course of his stay, he lived in the acute intensive care unit on the eighth floor and in another room on the seventh floor.
Life went from boring to terrifying. Most days I watched television. Cooking shows like Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” became favorites, though, or maybe because – I could not eat. Think of the weight of a gallon jug of milk. Brian lost 13 of those, 111 pounds, during his time at Holy Spirit. He looked at his body and marveled at where it had all gone.
Other days, he felt like he was dying. Her breathing became so shallow that he seemed unable to catch it. Alarms would sound. Nurses would arrive and work to calm him down. In time, he would breathe easier, or what Brian considered easier in those days.
Through it all, Mary acted as his advocate. When she moved into a new room, she made sure she had a window to look out on and a chair to sit on. The couple developed a growing list of nurses whose help ranged from simple acts of kindness to life-saving care. After Brian was discharged, Mary called Head Nurse Brynn Strine and checked off a list of people she wanted to thank, including the aforementioned Bernardi:
- Macy Warnick, Inpatient Cardiovascular Nurse Practitioner:: “You made me laugh and pushed Brian to improve”.
- Eric Boyer: “Thank you for NOT giving Brian a choice, but executing a plan to get him moving.”
- Hunter Murdoch, inpatient cardiovascular nurse: “The little things, like bringing Brian a newspaper, meant a lot to me. I saw how much you were trying to cheer him up.”
- Vittoria Paulus, ER nurse: “You heard me cry and share my fears. When he was being transferred to the cardiovascular unit, he took the time to call and let me know. Not everyone would have stopped what they were doing to tell me. I thought that was above and beyond.”
- Abby Stitt, a cardiovascular intensive care nurse: “Abby helped me get Brian’s fire company to drive by. She was great! She lifted the bed and moved it closer to the window. They drove through the parking lot, and I know how much it meant to him!
Seventeen weeks after Brian was admitted to Holy Spirit Medical Center, his health care team decided he was well enough to leave. Boyer pushed him through the gates in a wheelchair and took him for a short spin around the grounds. “You don’t know how much you appreciate listening to the birds. I just hear the traffic go by. It smells,” he said. He laughed. “It was different.”
Two weeks later, he left Espiritu Santo to Penn State Health Rehabilitation Hospitalhis last stop before he could finally go home.
Brian likes to show you a video of his return home on his cell phone. He comes home. Friends and well-wishers watch as the now surprisingly thin man arrives, with a tube attached to his nose. “Does anyone have a cheeseburger?” he asks. They all laugh.
Life after COVID is far from perfect. Much of his lung tissue has not recovered, so Brian still relies on oxygen tanks to breathe. He spends much of his time at his house in Enola. He is unsure of what the future holds, which is sometimes worrying given the mountain of medical bills he has racked up. Mary spends much of her time exploring the Internet and communicating with legislators.
He still visits Holy Spirit for pulmonary rehabilitation. “At this point, to some extent, I don’t expect his lungs to go back to normal,” Shaffer said. “I’m not sure how much lung function he’ll get back, but his breathing won’t be normal in the future.”
He’s eligible for a lung transplant, but Brian says he’s not interested. Lung transplant recipients survive only five to 10 years. And that’s not enough time.
He still visits his friends at the firehouse for dinner occasionally, bringing the oxygen tanks with him. From time to time, he sits in the cab of the fire truck or thinks longingly about the motorcycles he chose to sell. He has never thought of a job other than the one he has done before.
The future is a big question mark. Brian wants to be there to see what the answer is. People can only go so far, Brian says, but they haven’t gone far enough yet.
He is thankful for all those who fought to keep him well.
Above all, he is grateful for Mary.
“Some people go through this with no one,” he said. “I can’t imagine that.”