Life after COVID-19

Team members working in Requard Center for Acute Rehabilitation gather to celebrate COVID-19 survivor Grimber “Andy” DeLeon’s discharge on July 17. Back row, from left: Patricia Rooney, Sara Pender, Ren Boettger, Cassandra Kinser, Shawne’ Davis, DeDee Cole, Jamie Merritt, Alicia Wilson and Erin Scheele. Front row: Kenya and Andy DeLeon.

RIDGELY — Grimber “Andy” DeLeon came down with a fever on a Friday in early April, and within just a few days, was so short of breath that his wife, Kenya, took him to University of Maryland Shore Emergency Center at Queenstown. There, the 29-year-old dairy farm worker was tested for COVID-19 and within an hour, his test result came back positive. Placed on oxygen and transferred to UM Shore Medical Center at Easton via ambulance, DeLeon was in the first phase of his three-month journey through COVID-19 survival and recovery.

DeLeon can say little about his actual treatment for the virus because his condition was so poor that doctors at Easton quickly decided he needed to be transferred to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where he could be placed on an ECMO machine. “ECMO” is the acronym for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, and similar to the heart-lung bypass machine used in open heart surgery, the ECMO machine pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.

The last thing DeLeon remembers was being told by doctors and nurses that he was going to be put to sleep, and he would be okay. He spent roughly two months at UMMC, most of it on the ECMO machine and in a medically induced coma. Slowly his condition improved, and he was taken off the ECMO and brought out of the coma.

No longer positive for COVID-19, he was sent back to UM Shore Medical Center at Easton on June 18 to recover further. After a few weeks in inpatient care, he was admitted to the hospital’s Requard Center for Acute Rehabilitation to regain his strength and motor skills. The Requard Center, a member of the University of Maryland Rehabilitation Network, provides inpatient care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While he was grateful to have survived, DeLeon’s condition was very daunting. He could barely lift his head, much less sit up, and he could not feed himself.

“I just could not move, I could not even turn over, and although I had always been right-handed, I now had to use my left hand,” he said. Married and the father of a 4-year old, he missed his wife and son, and was eager to recover so he could return to his home in Ridgely.

The Requard team was well-prepared to help DeLeon achieve his rehab goals. A few inpatient rehab team members had worked with him when he was an inpatient on the hospital’s third and fourth floors, and they felt he had great potential for success in acute rehab.

“He was very motivated, so we were very excited when we learned he was coming to Requard,” recalled Ren Boettger, physical therapy assistant. “Honestly, given his condition, we thought he might be with us for a long time, probably a month or more.”

Acute rehab can be arduous, especially for patients who have suffered a severe health event such as a stroke or injury, or have been hospitalized for a long time and are thus “deconditioned,” which refers to a state of prolonged underuse of muscles that can trigger a cycle of increasing disability. DeLeon’s daily schedule of intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions was made all the more challenging by his limited use of his right hand, an inability to lift his left foot, and for much of his stay, the presence of multiple lines and tubes required for his continued medical treatment.

But with the support of Requard’s therapy and nursing teams, DeLeon began passing his milestones quickly. “We got him through the removal of his tracheostomy, we helped him up and out of his bed, then out of his room and walking,” said Alicia Wilson, occupational therapy assistant.

Just two and a half weeks after his admission to Requard, DeLeon had improved enough to be ready for discharge on July 17. He left the hospital with a walker and an ankle-foot orthotic, enabling him to walk with more stability. Within a few weeks he was able to put the walker aside, but he still uses the AFO. A home care nurse visits him a few times a week and continues to work on improving his strength, stamina and mobility.

“I am very good, I am going outside and can walk and breathe with no problems,” said DeLeon, speaking from his home in Ridgely. For now, he enjoys staying home with his son and helping him with remote learning via iPad. His wife, Kenya, has returned to work.

Returning to work himself is DeLeon’s ultimate goal, but for now, he is content.

“I am very thankful for everything,” he said. “I remember all of the therapists and nurses and how much they took care of me while I was in Requard. Everyone was so caring and nice to me. I am just so happy now and getting so much better.”

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