Jason Shanks started feeling weak in mid-November – so weak that one day his family called 911, requesting an ambulance take him to the hospital.
“That morning, he told me he'd had a good night, but he had to get up every three hours to do breathing treatments,” Shanks' wife, Melissa, said.
Jason Shanks, who has asthma, had to stop several times while walking down a flight of stairs in his home. He, his wife and their five children, had been diagnosed with COVID-19 about a week earlier. The family, Shanks said, was exposed through his daughter, who has special needs that require one-on-one attention. The rest of Shanks' children are home-schooled.
“Unfortunately, her therapist in her program got COVID and she was exposed. She then brought it home, and my whole family got COVID,” said Shanks, who is president of the Our Sunday Visitor Institute.
The adults were hit hard, Shanks particularly so. The children – ages 12, 10, 9, 5 and 3 – displayed mostly minor symptoms, including fever, vomiting and fatigue.
“Our 3-year-old fell asleep on the couch one day and slept until the next day,” Melissa Shanks said.
On Nov. 14, Shanks was admitted to Lutheran Hospital. He said a nurse described his case as the second worst she'd seen.
“At that time, I started sending text messages to people, saying goodbye. I really thought this was the end,” he said. “I told my wife where my life insurance policies were located.”
When Shanks was taken to the hospital, Melissa was still sick and now worried about what would happen to her children if her condition worsened.
“I was trying to figure out who in my family would be healthiest,” she said. “We didn't have a backup plan for if both of us were in the hospital.”
The family then learned its summer babysitter had also contracted COVID-19 and had heard Shanks had been admitted to the hospital. She quarantined with the family for 10 days.
“It was the first time in two weeks I felt like I could sleep,” Melissa said.
At the hospital, doctors told Shanks he needed to be sedated. That would allow his body time to rest. Shanks thought it would be for a few days. But a few days turned into several weeks – including being unconscious while on a ventilator.
In early December, doctors woke Shanks up and took him off the machine. He lasted two days before developing bacterial pneumonia and MRSA, which caused sepsis in his blood.
Doctors sedated Shanks for another four weeks. His kidneys shut down, requiring 24-hour dialysis for about two weeks, followed by a more typical dialysis regimen for a month. He underwent at least one blood transfusion.
“I am a living case that COVID is not just for the elderly, and I'm a living case that COVID is real,” Shanks said.
In mid-December, his condition improved. Shanks attributes that to the hard work of the hospital staff, along with the prayers of family, friends and supporters in Fort Wayne and elsewhere.
“The faith community really rallied around me; lots of prayers being said. It was really around then I started showing improvement,” he said. “Not that we have to talk about miracles, but in many ways it was the faith and the prayers of many.”
Locally, Shanks said friends, co-workers and neighbors offered assistance, provided meals and took up collections to help the family pay medical expenses.
“The Fort Wayne community has been tremendous,” he said, adding that includes the staff at Lutheran Hospital.
“These men and women, nurses, man, front-line heroes in my case, and I had a lot of them,” he said. “I got to know a lot of them and their life stories. ... I couldn't say enough, especially about the Fort Wayne medical team.”
When Shanks awoke after six weeks, it took time to grasp what was real and what wasn't.
“It took me awhile to figure out if I was still dreaming, if this was real,” he said.
It didn't take long for confusion to set in. While sedated, Shanks said his dreams were so vivid, he likened the experience to creating an alternate reality in his mind.
Shanks said he had conversations with Michael Jordan. Shanks also watched his father die, only to find out after waking up that his father was still very much alive. Sorting reality from the dream world took weeks, Shanks said.
“I realized that the dream world I was in didn't have what I would call the ordinary. I didn't eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, wash dishes,” he said. “It was all scenes, as if you were watching television.”
In early January, Shanks left the hospital for an acute care facility in Lima, Ohio, where he had to relearn many basic functions, such as standing, walking, writing, speaking and swallowing. The family had a choice between three facilities, including two in Indianapolis. Lima is closer to Fort Wayne.
“I don't think people understand the severity of (COVID) and what it does to people,” Shanks said. “I don't think they realize how vulnerable people are to this.”
From the acute care facility, Shanks went to intense rehab before returning home three weeks ago. He still has a long way to go toward making a full recovery.
Shanks said his kidney functions are back to normal, but there are concerns about nerve damage and numbness in several fingers and his left arm. He's also on medication for his heart and nerves.
Although he's on the mend, Shanks said his brush with COVID-19 has changed his perspective on what's truly important. He said looking forward to spending more time with his family. He also said he wants to help the community and be more active in area hospitals, because he understands what it's like to be lonely and scared.
“A near-death experience changes how you live your life going forward and I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I want to pay it forward as best I can in the life I live.”
Self-quarantine 2 days early
For a local podiatrist, COVID-19 started with some aches and chills.
One day in November, Dr. Benny Fair decided he should quarantine himself within his home. At the time, the 67-year-old didn't know he had contracted COVID-19, but decided to isolate himself because his wife, Fort Wayne City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
“I was diagnosed two days later,” Fair said. “Thank goodness I had already quarantined myself, just knowing how it could affect her.”
Fair said he quarantined for 12 days and is thankful that his most severe symptom was a loss of taste and smell. He's also thankful Chambers didn't contract the virus.
“The takeaway is the virus treats different people differently, from mild symptoms which some people experience to very severe symptoms, which require hospitalization,” Fair said. “Those with mild symptoms, like myself, can still transmit the virus.”
Because of that, Fair said he's far more cautious and aware of his surroundings. The virus is invisible to the naked eye, he said, which can make avoiding it difficult.
“It's caused me to take some universal precautions that I would have not otherwise taken, like washing my hands more or wearing a mask out in public,” he said. “I'm not sure if that will change, depending on the environment. If I'm flying from A to B, I might never not wear a mask.”
Fair said he's received both doses of the coronavirus vaccine, which helps provide a sense of protection. But he still thinks everyone needs to remain vigilant about hand washing and wearing masks.
“Stay alert that the virus exists and even though you may be protected by the vaccine, it's not 100%,” he said. “PPE up and stay aware.”
Discontinuing daily activities
Melba Stout is confident she caught COVID-19 at work.
The 60-year-old retail worker said she first felt feverish late on a Friday afternoon in mid-January and decided to head to a clinic the next day. Shortly after, Stout said she developed a fever and a cough and her energy level dropped drastically.
In order to rest, Stout – who works with a search-and-rescue team with her human remains detection dog Arlo – discontinued most of her daily activities.
“I did manage to get up and go around with the dog at least once a day,” she said. “But I'm sure he got shorted.”
Stout said she considers herself relatively fortunate. She didn't develop heart or lung problems. But her recovery took longer than she expected.
“I was off work for 16 days, and it was difficult to get through the day for another 10 (after that),” she said. “I would have to just stop and take a breath, rest a minute. It was really a strength dropper.”
It took “a good four weeks” for things to return to normal, Stout added.
Stout said she remains vigilant in her precautions, taking care to wear a mask and gloves all day.
“It helps remind me not to touch my face,” she said. “But I still sanitize when I take my gloves off.”
Stout said she mourns for the more than 500,000 Americans who have died “unnecessary deaths” from the coronavirus.
“I think we should have been more careful as a nation,” Stout said, adding that she feels the government should have taken different steps when the virus first emerged.
“If they had quarantined people before they let them into the country, we wouldn't have been in a worldwide pandemic,” she said. “We had the capacity to say, 'You can come, but you must quarantine.' It would have been inconvenient, but there would have been fewer deaths.”
COVID-19: Caught in the Grip
The coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic a year ago in March.
This story is part of a Journal Gazette series about changes prompted by the virus – at least temporarily – as individuals and communities rallied to respond and learned to cope.
Find other stories in this series at www.journalgazette.net by clicking “Sections,” then “COVID-19: Caught in the Grip.”