FRESNO, Calif. — Ronald Hill awoke in Kaiser Permanente Fresno thinking he’d been asleep for a night. He’d actually been unconscious for 29 days because of coronavirus.
The 70-year-old Fresno man, who goes by Ron, initially found himself unable to remember who he was or that he’d been married for 24 years.
COVID-19 had ravaged his body and lungs, requiring him to be connected to a ventilator machine and feeding tube in an induced coma. He suffered a stroke during that time, which contributed to his memory loss when he woke up. The ventilator was later replaced with a trach tube in his neck going to his windpipe to aid with breathing.
Hill spent 45 days at Kaiser before he was discharged to a rehabilitation facility. He finally returned to his Fresno home late last month.
It took him about a week to remember his wife, Debbie Hill, after his coma.
“It was just a joyous feeling when I found who I am and who she is,” Ron said. “It was really something. You can’t really explain it.”
Debbie said something similar. “He’s just a joy to be around and I’m just lucky to have him back because I thought he was going to be gone.”
Ron, who is Black, is aware of statistics that show African Americans are dying from coronavirus at a higher rate than whites. He wishes he could warn every Black person individually.
“I would like to tell them that we’re dying way more faster than any race that there is,” Ron said, “so we’ve got to take care of each other. Wear your mask. Do what’s supposed to be done.”
The Pew Research Center this month cited data showing Black Americans account for 24% of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. while accounting for about 13% of the U.S. population.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously issued a report about COVID-19 that suggests “a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.”
“Health differences between racial and ethnic groups are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic minorities than whites,” the CDC wrote. “In public health emergencies, these conditions can also isolate people from the resources they need to prepare for and respond to outbreaks.”
Among those conditions is not having health insurance: “Compared to whites, Hispanics are almost three times as likely to be uninsured, and African Americans are almost twice as likely to be uninsured.”
Ron tested positive for coronavirus in late March, a couple days before he was hospitalized. He thinks he got COVID-19 in Los Angeles while attending a funeral for a family member.
Ron said he doesn’t remember anything after his ambulance ride to the hospital. He thought he was still in L.A. when he regained consciousness weeks later.
Kaiser Dr. Robert Ferdman said Ron was one of the Fresno hospital’s first patients diagnosed with coronavirus. Underlying health issues, including a history of leukemia, made it harder for him to fight the virus. He got severe bacterial pneumonia, which was treated with antibiotics, and was connected to a ventilator.
Not all patients on ventilators are put into a coma, which depends on the severity of illness. Ron’s lungs were so damaged that his body needed to be temporarily paralyzed to help him heal, Ferdman said.
Debbie learned her husband had “taken a turn for the worst” about a week after he was admitted into an intensive care unit. She was alone at home in quarantine since she had been exposed to the virus.
“I’d just stare out the window and cry. … That was the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” Debbie said.
She had a hard time sleeping or eating and lost 20 pounds. She called the hospital every couple hours to check on him.
“Usually all I’d get is, ‘He’s stable,’” Debbie said. “Nothing worse, nothing better.”
As Ron’s body healed, doctors tried to wean him off medications to wake him in “what seemed like years, like forever” to Debbie. When he regained consciousness, an MRI revealed a stroke, which was treated with aspirin and cholesterol medication.
Once Ron remembered Debbie — in a regular hospital room, finally out of the ICU — he was calling her “every few minutes” to come and get him. She was allowed in the last few days to receive training to care for him. (Visitors are still normally not allowed in Kaiser at this time to reduce the spread of COVID-19.)
Ron’s trach was removed and he could talk and eat on his own again, starting with soft baby foods. He then turned his attention to regaining muscle strength.
“I’m a fighter,” Ron said. “After I started to feel a little better I started fighting for my life. … They told me I had to show that I could be OK in the rehab. … Whatever the doctors and nurses told me, I would do it. I didn’t give them no argument.”
Ron was discharged from Kaiser on May 12.
“The whole corridor was just full of people and signs and posters and just love,” Ron said, “and I couldn’t do nothing but cry because it was something to see.”
Of his tears: “It was just nice that people cared.”
He said he’s incredibly grateful to doctors and nurses, along with God and prayers from family and friends, for helping him survive.
“It’s just a miracle. It’s a blessing to be here,” he said, “and I’m grateful every day that I’m here because I have four daughters and two sons and 24 grandkids.”
He spent the next two weeks at the San Joaquin Valley Rehabilitation Hospital, where he regained some of his lost strength.
“I walked out of there,” he said. “That was a really big accomplishment.”
He now weighs about 160 pounds, an improvement from dropping to 138 pounds while sick with COVID-19.
He’s continuing physical therapy twice a week at Kaiser. His next goal is to regain strength in his hands and the ability to make a fist — important to the golf lover and window cleaner via Squeaky Clean Professional Window Cleaning Service. He retired as a longtime substance abuse counselor in Fresno County.
Ron turns 71 next week but said he feels about 55. Ferdman described him as “very happy.”
“He joked around a lot,” the hospitalist said of Ron as a patient. “We laughed a lot. You know he was loved and you could sense it when he walked out of the hospital with his wife and daughter.”
Ron said he wasn’t afraid in the hospital, but is afraid now when he sees people in the community without face coverings. He wears a mask whenever he leaves home.
“I’m still nervous that this stuff will come back on me,” he said, “so I’m very careful. … It’s very scary. If they went through what I went through, they would wear a mask too all the time.”
Ferdman said it’s “hurtful” to see people disregard social distancing guidelines as COVID-19 cases continue to grow. He said even though more places are opening up, people still need to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus — not just for themselves, but for their loved ones and “fellow man.”
“This is real,” Ferdman said of coronavirus. “It’s not a joke. It hasn’t gone away.”
People shouldn’t feel more comfortable until medical professionals learn more about COVID-19 and have more available treatments for it, he said.
“I hope that people take his story seriously,” Ferdman said of Hill. “It can happen to anyone.”
©2020 The Fresno Bee