Local COVID survivor blessed

Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Mike Hemphill, pictured with his wife Glenda, recalled a touching moment in his battle with COVID-19 when his grandchildren, many of whom are displayed on photos on the wall, appeared on the sidewalk in front of the hospital where he was quarantined in isolation, to wave and cheer him on in his recovery. Melonie Roberts/reporter@monett-times.com

Hemphill: ‘I don’t remember anything until 5 weeks later’

It started as a bit of sinus congestion and a sore throat, but before the week was out, Mike Hemphill, of Monett, was in a fight for his life against COVID-19 (coronavirus).

“I don’t remember anything from [the time I was watching] ‘Wheel of Fortune’ to when I woke up in the hospital five weeks later,” he said.

Glenda and Mike Hemphill both tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, but while Glenda had very few symptoms, Mike’s case turned into the fight for his life. Melonie Roberts/reporter@monett-times.com

His wife, Glenda, was happy to fill in some of the blanks.

“We started out with a bit of a sore throat and sinus congestion, nothing unusual for this time of year,” she said. “His kept gradually getting worse, but he told me he wasn’t feeling bad. But by Aug. 9, he was coughing, and his lungs were gurgling and I took him to the hospital.

“From there, they took him by helicopter to the COVID unit in Springfield,” she said.

“I went on a helicopter?” Mike said. “I’ve always wanted to go on a helicopter. When I finally did, I missed it.”

That was just the beginning of a two-month ordeal for the family, who could not visit or even speak to Mike for several weeks.

It turns out that, not only did Mike have COVID, but he was also suffering with double pneumonia and a collapsed lung.

“She didn’t see me for three days after they whisked me off on that gurney,” Mike said.

“I had to sit on the parking lot at the hospital because they wouldn’t let me inside,” Glenda said. “They would call me with updates, and sometimes, a nurse would come out to the car and tell me what they were doing. They told me they had to sedate him and put him on a ventilator.

“Once they flew him to Springfield. I didn’t see him the whole time he was up there.”

Worse, since Glenda had tested positive for the virus as well, she was required to quarantine for 14 days.

“I don’t know how we got it,” she said. “We stayed pretty close to home. We wore masks. We went to Walmart and to Lowe’s sometimes, but we didn’t really go anywhere else. I tested positive and had no symptoms. Mike, well, he almost died from it. We were probably exposed at the same time.”

What the couple learned from the experience is that this virus it truly uncharted territory for those in the medical field.

“There’s a lot they don’t know about it,” said Mike. “No one really knows anything.”

He received powerful antibiotics and plasma therapy, whereby doctors were using blood donated by people who’ve recovered from COVID-19, which has antibodies to the virus that causes it. The donated blood is processed to remove blood cells, leaving behind plasma and antibodies. These are then given to people with COVID-19 to boost their ability to fight the virus.

“It’s lucky he got it in August,” Glenda said. “A lot of people died early on from the virus. They just didn’t know [how to treat it].”

Mike didn’t suffer some of the symptoms others complain about, the incessant coughing and raging headaches. At least, he doesn’t think he did.

“My oxygen levels were very low,” he said. “But, I was unconscious through most of it. COVID plays with the mind. It leaves a lot of spaces and gaps. The nurses told us some of the things I said. I know I had dreams and hallucinations. I’m more clear-headed now, but for the two months I was in the hospital, I remember zero.”

“One time, he was begging the nurses,” Glenda said. “He told them, ‘If you’ll just let me go home, I’ll come back tomorrow, at any time you want.’”

“After two-and-a-half weeks in the COVID unit, I told someone my wife and I had just gotten back from New Orleans, where we ate at some fine French restaurants,” Mike said.

“We haven’t been to New Orleans in years,” Glenda said.

“The brain is full of everything you have ever seen or done,” Mike said. “Wires just get crossed when you are like that.”

As Mike moved closer to recovery, the doctors weaned him off the ventilator and some of the medications. But things did not go quite according to plan.

“He was slow to wake up coming off the vent,” Glenda said. “They did tests and those came back good. He just wouldn’t wake up. Then, every day for four or five days, they started talking about end-of-life decisions. Our daughter is a nurse, and she told the doctors to hang on a few more days. Then they started talking about having to insert a trachea tube. But again, we asked them to wait a few more days.”

Glenda was accustomed to getting daily phone calls from the doctor with updates about Mike’s condition.

“They usually came in about the same time every day,” she said. “One morning, she called real early and my heart just sank. But when I answered the phone, she said, ‘He squeezed my hand! I wanted you to know!’”

Mike had finally turned a corner, and on Sept. 10, he was transferred to the rehabilitation unit at Cox Monett Hospital.

“Can you imagine?” he said. “For four or five weeks at Cox Monett, I couldn’t get out of bed to go to the bathroom without having being strapped into a harness and being escorted. I had to learn to walk, and talk, to eat and swallow. It was like I had been paralyzed. I lost 40 pounds while I was sick.”

After being on a feeding tube for six weeks, a taste of real food sounded appealing. Until he learned it was cream of wheat.

“Bleh,” he said. “The nurse told me, ‘You just don’t know how to fix it,’ and she started stirring in butter, sugar and cinnamon. I took that first bite and decided it was pretty good.”

Mike was astonished at how badly he had been impacted by the rogue virus.

“It was completely debilitating,” he said. “I couldn’t eat or even take meds with my right hand.”

But Mike was happy to be at Cox Monett Hospital.

“There is something about familiar faces taking care of you that is comforting,” he said. “The nurses at both hospitals provided extraordinary care. We are extremely fortunate to be getting that new facility here in town.

“With rehab, I have gone from motionless to mobile with a walker. My therapist said I am so far ahead of his other COVID patients that I am the only one who is not on oxygen. My doctor took a photo of me to send to the COVID unit in Springfield. The nurses on that unit, they work so hard and all they see is death and dying. She said she wanted to send my picture to Springfield to post in that unit as an inspiration to the nurses and staff.

Mike said it was God’s will he survived.

“It was out of man’s hands,” he said.

One things he does now is advocate the use of masks.

“Me wearing a mask protects you,” he said. “You wearing a mask protects me.”

Mike has a new appreciation for the simple things in life.

“Good food,” he said. “Sleeping in my own bed. That was as good as food. My family, my nine grandkids being there for me and sending messages and face-timing me while I was in the hospital. The prayers from people in the community who heard about what was happening on Facebook. I truly appreciate sunrises and sunsets now.”

The experience has also spurred Mike to live life to the fullest.

“We always talk about what we are going to do ‘one of these days,’” he said. “We are going to travel more, once this is over. We’re going to make new memories.”

“One day at a time,” Glenda said. “We’ve been blessed.”

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