During a tearful Zoom call hosted on May 12, a team of healthcare professionals and caregivers at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles held a virtual reunion to celebrate a special patient with whom they had all spent weeks working. That individual was 41-year-old Nathan Walker, a COVID-19 survivor.
On May 13, West Newsmagazine caught up with Walker, who is going through physical therapy after combating COVID-19 and losing almost 30 pounds of muscle mass during his three weeks in the ICU.
Walker had been in a coma for weeks after he was exposed to novel coronavirus in early April. After the exposure, Walker was told by St. Louis County Health Department to go into quarantine for two weeks, which he did immediately. It was during that period when the virus began its onset.
“I’d quarantined myself at that point for one week and five days when I felt the first symptom come on,” Walker said. “I’d been maintaining a log of my temperature, blood pressure and pulse rate, and my temperature had spiked. I don’t remember what it was. There’s a lot of things that are still fuzzy.”
After his increase in temperature, Walker said he developed a slight cough.
One day later, Walker’s symptoms had become severe enough that he went to urgent care, after which he was immediately transported to the ICU at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital for treatment and recovery.
Shortly after he was checked-in, Walker received news that he would have to go on a ventilator. Walker spent 19 days on a ventilator and was in the hospital’s ICU for three weeks in a medically induced coma.
His sister Kimberly said there were multiple times when they came close to losing him.
“It was three weeks of hell,” she said.
Kimberly used platforms like Zoom to communicate with employees from her home in Texas. During that time, she said the SSM Health nurses and staff members maintained constant communication.
“They got very used to me calling and checking in,” she said.
During the call with Walker’s caregivers, Kimberly showed off pages of information and logs she had documented about his journey, including all the times each of the caregivers spoke with her.
“You saved his life,” Kimberly told the nurses and caregivers during the May 12 reunion. “I’m so grateful. Thank you for this moment.”
ICU nurse Danielle Santiago was one of the caregivers in the room when Walker was extubated. She also took care of him the night he was intubated.
“Just getting to know him and his family over that weekend was pretty life-changing,” Santiago said.
After the tube was removed from his windpipe, Santiago was the one to produce a letterboard for Walker on which he wrote, ‘thank you.’ But that wasn’t all Walker wanted to communicate.
Upon his awakening, Walker’s caregivers were surprised to find out that he remembered their voices and identities, despite the fact that each caregiver was in full personal protective equipment [PPE] during their time spent with Walker.
“A couple nights later when I came back just to say ‘hi,’ when we were actually really talking and you were waking up more, I remember telling you who I was and that it was okay if you didn’t know me …” ICU night-shift nurse Taylor McCarty told Walker during the reunion. McCarty had taken care of Walker multiple times during his five-week stay. “I grabbed your hand and you said, ‘Oh no, I remember your voice.’ As soon as you said that, I had to excuse myself from the room because I just could not believe how much you had been through, how much you had pulled through and to be where you are, it’s just amazing. We are all so incredibly blessed to be part of your story and have taken care of you.”
Walker, however, said he wasn’t surprised that he remembered them, even though it was just voices and eyes. “… that’s all I really had to focus on,” Walker said.
In response, Walker’s caregivers surprised him with a handmade book on May 12. The book showed the faces of his caregivers in full PPE juxtaposed to their faces without any protective gear. The goal was to help Walker connect the faces with the eyes or images of the people who worked with him into the ICU and potentially help his memory as he moves into further stages of recovery.
Walker said was not expecting to receive a gift from the people who took care of him.
“I was very emotional,” he said.
During the reunion, he also took multiple opportunities to thank the nurses on the call, and those who weren’t, for saving his life.
“Thank you for your efforts, thank you for what you did, thank you for being in the COVID unit for weeks at a time,” Walker said. “You guys are amazing.”
As for the seriousness of the virus and its impact on the human body, Kimberly said her brother’s situation was mainly a respiratory, one-organ issue and that is not the case for some individuals that come into the ICU.
“He is 41 years old and healthy, and this hit him like a ton of bricks,” Kimberly said.
Walker agreed and said what happened to him could happen to anyone.
“You could get a cough, and that might be it,” Walker said during the May 13 follow-up. “Or you might be on a ventilator for 19 days.”
As for the people who are calling him a hero after his recovery, Walker said he hadn’t thought of the situation from that perspective.
“From my end, all I can think about is how grateful I am,” he said.