Friends, Family Welcome Johnson Home after Extended Hospital Stay from COVID-19
TUPELO, Miss.—When Debbie Ann Johnson finally made it back to Itawamba County on March 11, friends and neighbors gathered around the town square to welcome her home. After all, it had been a long, hard—and somewhat doubtful, road home.
Debbie Ann, who serves as Itawamba County’s tax collector, spent 84 days at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo after being diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-December at Fulton Medical Clinic. “She has asthma—not bad—but we were concerned because of that,” says her husband, Reggie.
Within a week, Debbie Ann was struggling to breathe. After two trips to the NMMC Gilmore-Amory Emergency Department a few days apart, she was making little improvement. After a particularly rough night, Reggie took her back to Fulton Medical Clinic, where she was diagnosed with COVID pneumonia and taken by ambulance to NMMC in Tupelo. “She just went downhill really fast,” Reggie says. Because the hospital was so full, Debbie had an extended stay in the Emergency Department until a room on the COVID-19 unit became available. She was given the antiviral drug remdesivir and then placed on a ventilator.
Debbie Ann’s nurses called Reggie twice a day with updates. Each time they would try to wean Debbie Ann from the ventilator to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, her oxygen level would plummet. Her pulmonologist told Reggie that within a few days he would have some important decisions to make. “Debbie Ann and I have an agreement that we don’t want extraordinary measures taken if we wouldn’t have a good quality of life,” Reggie says. In mid-January, while he was grieving the probability of losing Debbie Ann, the hospital called. “They said, ‘you’re not going to believe this, but we’ve got your wife off the ventilator and on CPAP, and she’s doing fine,’” Reggie says. “By all reasoning, they didn’t know why this was happening.”
But Reggie had an explanation: “there was a lot of praying going on,” not only by family and friends but by churches near and far. While Reggie was “cautiously optimistic,” doctors warned him that the coming days were critical. Because COVID-19 had damaged her lungs, she had chest tubes inserted. Remarkably, her lungs healed within a few weeks and she was able to move to the Pulmonary Stepdown Unit, where Reggie and their children could finally visit her after 30 agonizing days. “She beat COVID,” Reggie says, “then we had to start dealing with the complications.” COVID-19 had also caused nerve damage to her foot, which was debilitating and painful.
In early February, Debbie Ann transferred to NMMC’s Rehabilitation Institute in Tupelo, a 28-bed inpatient unit staffed by a team of professionals under the direction of physical medicine physicians who help patients reach their individual goals. There, she participated in several hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy daily. At first, she required help just to sit up on the side of her bed. She was too weak to eat. It took three therapists to help her stand. “She didn’t have much confidence,” Reggie says. “But she got more and more confident each day, you could just sense it.” When Debbie Ann would say, “I can’t,” her therapists would say, “we’re going to show you how.”
“I had three therapists holding me up and I was steadily hearing their encouragement,” Debbie Ann says. “They are the best cheerleaders I’ve ever heard. That’s what it took to get me from nothing to where I am now.” Debbie Ann will soon start therapy at NMMC’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Center to continue getting stronger. But for now, she’s happy to be home and grateful to everyone who helped her along the way.