ORLANDO, Fla. – At 42, Terry Greear was active and healthy, an elementary school PE teacher who loved to run around with his students, practice lacrosse and basketball with his sons and coach soccer at a local high school.
Then he got COVID-19.
It was January, and he was not yet eligible for a vaccine. Less than a week after testing positive for the coronavirus, “Coach Beard” — his facial hair is so long and thick he would hang Christmas ornaments on it during the holidays — was struggling to breathe.
He left his home for the hospital and was soon in intensive care, his condition deteriorating. His lungs collapsed, and his terrified family feared he would not survive. He was put on a ventilator and then on an ECMO machine — “the last line of defense,” he said, in the fight against COVID-19.
Greear recovered, but it would be 72 days before he left the hospital. He lost 50 pounds and returned home needing a walker and portable oxygen. His first fitness goal was painfully modest for the 6-foot-5 coach who’d previously done three-mile runs and workouts on a Peloton stationary bike: Walk around the block.
Recently, Greear returned to his teaching job at Cypress Springs Elementary in east Orange County. He’s delighted to be on campus and has embraced a new role as COVID-19 vaccine promoter.
Everyone eligible should get it, he said, a message he has shared on Facebook, on a video done by Orange County Public Schools and on CNN.
“If I had the vaccine, I wouldn’t have been in the hospital,” Greear said last week as he and other teachers readied for the start of the 2021-22 school year.
“I’m not an expert on vaccines,” he said. “I’m an expert on what happens when you contract COVID. It’s a tough, tough thing. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”
He suffered physically during his illness and was sometimes scared. But there are also long stretches of his hospitalization he cannot recall. His family is not so fortunate.
“My wife, my boys, and my family remember it all,” he wrote on Facebook on July 28. “Please protect your family. No one’s wife, husband, children, or parents should have to go through what my family endured while I was at my sickest.”
Greear doesn’t know how he contracted the virus. He and his wife, Stephanie, were careful all of 2020, he said, wearing masks, sanitizing and canceling Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings with extended family. He even came back to school after the winter holiday break with a face shield to wear in addition to his mask as added protection.
That Thursday, Jan. 7, though, he started to feel “off” and oddly hot. He was the junior varsity coach for the boy’s soccer team at East River High School and the team had a game that evening. He called the head coach and told him that he couldn’t coach — and that he needed to go get a COVID-19 test.
The test results the next day showed he was positive. His sons, Ryan and Matthew, tested positive, too, but they never had more than mild symptoms. Stephanie was fine, but Greear got sicker and sicker as the family was quarantined at home.
On Jan. 13, a friend who is a nurse came over to check on him, noticed his fingers were turning blue and said, “Oh, my gosh, you need to go to the hospital right now,” he recalled.
Greear was admitted to Orlando Regional Medical Center and by the next day he was in intensive care, with pneumonia in both lungs.
He had no underlying health conditions, and he had never smoked. He loved to exercise and to teach children about the benefits of being active.
“This should not happen to me,” he said.
His doctors do not know why the virus hit him so hard, he said, but in the hospital none of the early treatments seemed to help. “I was getting worse and worse,” he said.
On Jan. 24, he was intubated to help him breathe and then transferred to AdventHealth Orlando because there was a fear he might need a double-lung transplant, and that was the place to be if he did.
There he was hooked up to the ECMO machine, something similar to a heart-and-lung bypass machine, that takes over lung function and allows the patient’s to rest and recover. He would remain that way for 30 days.
During that time, the man who said he always hated needles had three chest tubes inserted to help inflate his lungs, a tracheostomy so the ventilator could be attached, a feeding tube to provide nutrition and several blood transfusions.
His wife, a second-grade teacher at Avalon Elementary School, continued to work, then drove each evening to the hospital to see him. She wanted to make sure her husband wasn’t alone but also had to parent their sons, now 12 and 16.
“She did it all,” Greear said. “She really is the superhero in all of this.”
And it wasn’t easy. Greear’s lungs collapsed and he suffered other setbacks, too, each one terrible for his family. “When the phone would ring, what kind of phone call would it be?”
Their schools and the boys’ schools — the older one is at Timber Creek High and the younger one at Avalon Middle School — rallied around them, providing meals, help and support.
Greear spent his 43rd birthday in the hospital and his 20th wedding anniversary, too.
Eventually, doctors got him off ECMO and then the ventilator, he said. That was late February. He was too weak to stand and even simple tasks left him exhausted.
Picking up a phone felt like heaving a brick and washing his hands — “turn faucet on, pump soap, wash” — felt overwhelming.
“It’s hard to say how hard it was,” he said. “Learning how to walk again. It was the craziest thing. I had to think about how to walk.”
He wanted to be back as he was, but his body needed more time. “You kind of get angry, but there is nothing you can do.”
In mid-March, he was transferred to AdventHealth Winter Park for intensive physical therapy. He was discharged March 26.
In May, he was able to visit his school and say hello to colleagues and students who’d been rooting for his recovery.
He has some nerve damage in his feet and he sometimes still feels winded but overall feels much more like himself. His new goal is to run a 5K at Thanksgiving.
He is thankful for community support, good health insurance and the “amazing” team of doctors, nurses and other medical staff who treated him at all three hospitals.
“They provided me the best health care I could get, and they didn’t give up on me.”
But he wishes he never needed their expertise. And he will tell anyone who will listen to get a vaccine, as he, his wife and sons have done.
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins spoke with the Greears and shared a video he did during a back-to-school news conference last week.
“Their story is both frightening and heart-warming,” Jenkins said. “We are so happy he is back and doing well with us and think the message he shares is critical.”
On the video, Greear was blunt. “I would not wish COVID on anyone,” he said. “If you are eligible to get a vaccine, do it.”
Greear’s beard was shaved in the hospital but, happily, it has grown back. As classes began, he said he was excited and grateful for another chance to embrace “the normalcy of life.”