Kevin Jackson’s life-changing battle with COVID-19 began at his dialysis appointment, from which he was rushed to the hospital after his temperature soared to 103 degrees.
Kevin Jackson doesn’t remember much about his life-changing battle with COVID-19. That’s because much of it was spent in a controlled coma as he battled for his life. But now that the 63-year-old father of six is on the mend, one thing he says he knows for certain is that the high-level care and personalized attention of his medical team at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital helped save his life – as did the prayers of both family and strangers up and down the East Coast.
“It’s a miracle, really, that I’m here to tell my story,” the retired Washington Township, New Jersey, resident says. “But I am, and I’m so grateful.”
Kevin’s ordeal began the morning of April 1, when he found himself dealing with unexplained diarrhea – which, he’s since learned, can be a symptom of COVID. He had a scheduled dialysis appointment that afternoon and figured he’d let the staff know, just in case he needed to use the bathroom during his hemodialysis treatment.
“Dialysis is a lifeline for me; I wasn’t going to miss my treatment,” he recalls. But things never got that far.
The staff at the dialysis center took Kevin’s temperature when he arrived at the facility, and discovered it was a soaring 103 degrees. Within minutes, he was whisked away by ambulance to Jefferson Washington Township Hospital, less than five minutes away. By the time he arrived at the Emergency Department, Kevin was slipping into unconsciousness.
I vaguely remember getting into the ambulance. I’m a big guy–about 375 pounds at the time–and I thought, ‘How is this little guy going to get me into that ambulance?’ –Kevin Jackson
The rest, he says, is a blur.
Medical and Spiritual Healing
By the time Jackson’s COVID test results came back on April 3, he was declining rapidly, coming in and out of consciousness. Shortly after, he was transferred from a medical-surgical unit to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit in a medically induced coma, on a ventilator and with a feeding tube.
“At first we thought maybe he had food poisoning,” recalls Infectious Diseases physician Dr. Todd Levin. “But we quickly realized that there was something else going on.”
Jackson’s illness came at the start of the pandemic, when hydroxycholorquine was being used to treat certain hospitalized COVID-19 patients. However, it did not help him.
After two weeks on a ventilator, it became apparent that Jackson would need to undergo a tracheostomy–a procedure that involves creating an opening in the neck to place a tube into a patient’s windpipe, allowing air to enter the lungs. As Dr. Levin explains, the longer a patient is on a ventilator, the more susceptible they are to infection and other potential complications. And Kevin Jackson–a morbidly obese dialysis patient and cancer survivor–was already in a very compromised position.
“Especially in the early days of this pandemic, we didn’t have much to treat patients with, so we worked hard to figure out what worked and what didn’t,” Dr. Levin explains. “In Kevin’s case, the excellent and diligent care of the ICU and Critical Care teams allowed him to pull through. The focus was on supporting his ability to get oxygen and decreasing the inflammation while providing him with bedside dialysis treatments several days a week.”
But there was another secret weapon working in Kevin’s favor: the unfailing support and devotion of his family. His wife, Melissa, encouraged the staff to hook up Kevin’s smartphone to a computer and play his downloaded gospel music, day and night. Since the family could not visit him in the hospital, they became very connected to the care team and did their best to lift Kevin’s spirits through FaceTime calls.
“I think he knew we were there, but he couldn’t communicate,” says Melissa, adding that she learned all she could about his medical condition so she could understand the terminology and updates provided by staff. “I was bracing for the worse, so I wanted to get as educated as I could so that I could reach out to people praying for Kevin in various prayer groups, and tell them exactly what they needed to pray for: ‘Pray that his inflammatory markers improve; pray that his oxygen saturation improves.’”
Every day, Melissa would hear from Kevin’s doctors with updates: “Sometimes the phone would ring at 4 in the morning and they’d tell me he’d had a bad night, but was hanging on. For a while there, it really didn’t look good.” Once, she recalled, one of their sons became convinced his dad wasn’t going to make it. Melissa recalls deciding after that, as a family, they would fast and pray every morning until they got a call from the doctor with an update: “With fasting, you can cleanse your body and also stay focused on prayer.” Their church deacon, she recalls, told her that “no matter how bad it looks, we’re not going to look at that– we’re going to look at what God can do and ask God to heal him.’”
Critical Care physician Dr. Kelly Schiers says COVID-19 has proven to be a mysterious and formidable foe. “What we know about COVID on one level is that we know nothing. We have seen every type of patient presentation you can imagine, including those like Kevin’s: ‘One minute I was fine; the next minute, I had diarrhea; the next minute, I couldn’t breathe.’”
Within a couple of weeks in the ICU, Kevin seemed to be rallying; the first clue to his improvement was the need for less oxygen. Still, the odds weren’t great. “Based on how sick he was, if you were to have read his chart in the ICU, you might assume he wouldn’t make it … I like to think that the immense amount of hard work the team put into his care factored into the fact that he turned a corner,” Dr. Schiers says.
In an effort to wean Kevin off of the trach, he was transferred to a specialty hospital in Delaware for additional care in early May. While he battled “ICU delirium” – a state of confusion often faced by sedated patients who no longer have an awareness of time – he was slowly weaned off the trach and began intensive physical therapy.
But a Staph infection of unknown cause brought him back to Jefferson Washington Township Hospital in late June. While he dreaded returning – Kevin was treated with IV antibiotics for a few days – the staff treated him like a returning celebrity. “People were like, ‘I know you; you’re a miracle,’” Kevin recalls. “In some ways, I was a victory for them because I made it.”
Jefferson Washington Township ICU nurse Jamie Reid agrees, recalling how moved staff was when – during one FaceTime call – Kevin’s son sang a gospel song to him.
“There was so much support for him, both from staff and from the family. Here in the ICU we were all tremendously dedicated to trying to help him pull through,” she said. “When I found out that he did, I was shocked but so happy. It was so great to find out how he was doing.”
Fellow ICU nurse Jessica Deaner says Kevin’s family was “a ray of light” for the hospital staff during his month-long stay.
It was so horrible that he had to go through this ordeal. But they were there for him in so many ways, and we did what we could to support him and his family as best we could. Most families who go through something like this are appreciative, but Kevin’s family was on another level. –Jessica Deaner
Kevin and Melissa look forward to the day when they can visit the hospital staff in person to express their gratitude. Jessica can’t wait either: “It will be amazing to finally see their faces; we feel like we already know them, but that will be a very special moment.”
Life and Recovery After COVID-19
These days, Kevin, Melissa and their kids are savoring their time together. Kevin, who is undergoing extensive physical therapy, has lost more than 70 pounds, which he’s trying to keep off. Melissa, who also contracted COVID-19 – but a much milder variation – has twice donated her plasma for research that hopes to prove that antibodies in recovered coronavirus patients can help with others’ recovery. They hope to eventually be able to meet members of their Jefferson care team in person.