COLORADO SPRINGS — Jim and Charlene Needham have had a long, arduous a journey with COVID-19 that began in September of 2020 and nearly took Jim's life. For six months, Jim was in and out of hospitals as he battled the virus and its aftermath. He lost 40 lbs. and had to re-learn to walk, talk and eat.
Charlene tells me, “We have a story, and having watched what Jim has gone through, I’m grateful that he is sitting here at this counter right now with me, because it almost didn't happen.”
That's not just the opinion of a loving wife. Dr. Christopher Merrick with Pulmonology Associates in Colorado Springs became Jim's pulmonologist during his initial hospitalization at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs.
Dr. Merrick says, “I have no explanation as to why he is still alive and doing as well as he is.”
Jim and Charlene wanted to share their story to say thank you to the many people who have helped them: doctors, nurses, and staff at several hospitals, as well as their family, friends, neighbors and loved ones. They also want to share a message.
Jim tells me, “My message would be to remember that COVID can get anybody at any time. It can get you just in a minor way or it can take you all the way to the graveyard, just as quick as that.”
It’s a lesson Jim learned firsthand. Prior to the pandemic Jim says, “I was actually in vibrantly good health.”
Both Jim and Charlene are in their mid 60’s and Jim has a minor autoimmune condition that was diagnosed a few years ago, which was well-managed. Still, when the pandemic broke out and there was so much uncertainty about the virus, he knew to take COVID precautions seriously.
Charlene says, “He was on three immunosuppressant drugs, and his doctor told him, ‘If you even get a cold you go to the emergency room.’ So, we knew if COVID came around, it could be curtains.”
Jim began working from home in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. He says he had been careful not to go out much. He's still not sure where he picked up the virus, but the first signs of trouble came on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020.
Charlene says, “Saturday nights normally Jim would mow the lawn, but he just didn't feel great, and so he just hung out on the couch.” Whatever it was seemed to pass quickly. “Sunday morning he said I feel great, so he met his sister for breakfast and mowed her lawn and came home and mowed our lawn. Then Monday morning he fell down the stairs, because we know now that he didn't have enough oxygen. We called the doctor. We got a virtual appointment on Tuesday morning and the doctor asked, ‘What's your oxygen level?’ We had a pulse oximeter, and we said, ‘It's 82.’ and he said, ‘Call an ambulance right now.’ ”
When the Needhams arrived at UCHealth Memorial Central’s emergency department, they were hoping for the best, but that’s not how things played out. Jim says, “When I went down, I went down fast.”
Charlene recalls, “I dropped him off at the emergency room, and they let me go into the room with him. I was sitting with him, and they were putting “Do Not Enter” signs on the door, and they tested him, and they said to me. ‘You better get tested because you're probably positive - and of course I was.”
One of the things the Needhams hope others will learn from their story is the reality of COVID’s unpredictable range of impact. Both Jim and Charlene were considered high risk simply because of their age, but while Jim was declining quickly Charlene says her symptoms were mild. “It was very smooth; I was just tired, really tired and that type of thing. I really didn't experience very many symptoms.”
Jim, however, was just beginning a very long struggle time, and Charlene was keenly aware of how uncertain the future was. Charlene says, “When they finally were going to admit him, I said to him, ‘You know this may be the last time I ever see you.’ and I kissed him - knowing full well he was positive (for COVID) - at that point it didn't really matter, and it turns out that almost came true.”
Charlene’s COVID test did, as expected, come back positive, so she began her quarantine at home. At first, she kept in touch with her husband as best as she could. “He had his phone”, said Charlene, “We would text each other but his texts got fewer and fewer and fewer.”
Jim’s texts were slowing down because he was so sick that he was losing the ability to communicate. Charlene says, “I found out later on he coded, and they had to resuscitate him.”
On Sept. 30, Jim was placed on a ventilator and on Oct. 1 he was moved to the intensive care unit at Memorial Central. Charlene was just finishing her quarantine. She says, “The day that they intubated him was the first day I could visit him, but they had already intubated him when I got there, and so I was never able to talk to him at all.”
From there, things went from bad to worse, says Charlene. “COVID is bad that way - it causes a lot of problems that people don't think about. While he was in the ICU he was on the ventilator for about a month and a half, and he had a seizure one day. He ended up with a brain bleed, both of his lungs collapsed, and he needed multiple chest tubes. He had a stroke, and a heart attack, and all of these things were while he was in the ICU unconscious.”
Despite Jim’s medically induced coma, Charlene says going to the hospital became her daily routine. “I would get there around 9 or 10 o'clock and I would stay all day. I just sat outside his room and watched the numbers (through the glass). The room was huge and I couldn't really see the monitors very well because he was so far back in the room. I had a little set of binoculars, and I would sit there and watch the monitors and see his oxygen level at 40, or 50. I knew where they needed to be and I would just try to will those numbers up.”
And then, it seemed like the worst was going to happen. Charlene says, “One day they said to me, ‘He can't sustain this level throughout the day, so if you need to bring people in, today is the day that you should do it.’”
Charlene asked her 86-year-old mom to join her at the hospital. “We just sat there and prayed and tried to will those numbers up. He didn't know we were there - at least consciously he didn't know we were there - but I know he knew we were there.”
And even during the darkest hours, simply being there with Jim was enough for Charlene. “It did my heart good, that's the best I can say it. It was important for me to be there and see what was happening.”
Somehow Jim survived that day, and the next day and the day after that. When he later learned of Charlene's constant presence, Jim says: “It didn't surprise me that she had been there standing her ground at my doorstep in the lockdown facility here in Colorado Springs.”
The depth of this couple’s love and commitment to one another was clear to everyone at the hospital. Dr. Merrick says of Charlene: “She won the hearts of everyone in the ICU by her dedication to her husband. She would sit outside of his room with her opera glasses, and she would watch the numbers. She would ask very intelligent questions, appropriate questions, and she also let us do our job caring for her husband. Some family members can get pretty defensive and then trying to care for their loved one can be troublesome to the relationship between the medical care team and the patient, but she really augmented that relationship and helped us a lot.”
On Nov. 1, 2020, Jim emerged from oblivion, six weeks and two days after Charlene had taken him to the emergency department. Charlene says, “The nurses at UCHealth are fantastic; they knew I was waiting for the day he was going to wake up. They had taken him off the paralytic drugs, and they were pulling him out of sedation slowly. That morning, the nurse called me, and she said, ‘I want you to know that he's awake.’ When I got there, she had a chair sitting by the bed for me.”
She recalls that his eyes were barely open, and he was slowly coming out of his sedation and that’s where Jim says his memories of his COVID experience resumed after being admitted. “I was unconscious for a long, long, long time, and a lot happened to me way before I had any memory or knowledge of it. At the beginning of recovery - the recovery was brutal - just brutal. When I woke up, I couldn't move anything, just a little bit of head motion and I could move my shoulders a little bit but nothing else. I had to start all the way from learning how to swallow again and progress very slowly.”
As he progressed, he also needed to be moved to different hospitals to address different parts of his recovery and rehab. “I moved from hospital to hospital for quite a while. We started out at Memorial Central here in Colorado Springs.” He also had stays at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, a long-term care facility in Denver, a skilled nursing facility in Colorado Springs, and he returned to Memorial Central for a stay in the rehabilitation unit. “It was lots of moving around,” he said.
Through it all, Charlene continued her daily routine of being by her husband’s side. Jim says, “Charlene drove every day for months while I was in Denver to come visit me - even if it was just for an hour. It was the thing that would get me through the pain and the frustration. It meant a lot to me and it was a major part of my recovery and my ability to handle the emotional ups and downs of being that close to expiring.
Finally in March, after months of hard work and slow progress, Jim was able to come home just in time for a big day. Charlene says, “Our goal was to get home by our wedding anniversary on March 24th, celebrating 42 years - and we came home on March 23rd. We fought really hard, and he fought really hard to get into the therapy floor at UCHealth Memorial (Central) because he knew that was the only way he was going to get home.”
When he arrived home, there was a large yellow ribbon on the tree in their front yard. Jim says, “I was hoping for very little fanfare, and it was good there wasn't much - just the yellow ribbon - because by the time we got here, I was ready to lay down.”
Now as Dr. Merrick continues to care for Jim through his ongoing recovery, he marvels and tells me of Jim: “Miracle man, I have no explanation as to why he is still alive and doing as well as he is. For as sick as he was for as long as he was, he's doing spectacularly. He had it (COVID) as bad as you can possibly get it. He had every component from the lung disease, the lung injury to the scarring of the lungs. What I can say about Jim is that he does have a true long-haul type phenomena - in the sense that he was sick for so long, he will remain sick for some time to come.”
Jim also looks back and appreciates how far he was come. “I had to start all the way from learning how to swallow again and progress very slowly to the point where I can walk now, but at great expense to my lung capacity and endurance. The hardest part for me has been the enforced slowness of the recovery. I can only do so much every day and then I become exhausted, and I have to wait for the next day. But my intent is to return to normal.”
Since our interview in early May, Jim continues to progress. He’s now taking walks around the block, and he has returned to some half-workdays from home, and he can climb the stairs to their second-floor bedroom to sleep in his bed, escaping nights downstairs. He and Charlene have gotten vaccinated and are also able to eat out from time to time, with his oxygen tank in tow.
Jim says when he looks back on his journey, “I can't help but think I've got work to do yet. There is no reason why I should've survived based on what I know about what has happened to a lot of people.”
Both Jim and Charlene are so thankful for the many healthcare professionals who cared for him and helped save his life. Jim also credits his wife. “I was so close to death so many times. The only thing that got me through was Charlene’s support and faith. You have to believe that somebody intervened on my behalf to get me through.”
Charlene says, “What we really want to say is, I want people … to have hope and not ever give up. I also want them to understand what COVID is and how important it is to get vaccinated. It's really important having watched what Jim has gone through. We were talking this morning of how grateful I am that he is sitting here with me right now - because it almost didn't happen. That’s the power of love.”
Jim says, “My message would be to remember that COVID can get anybody at any time. There is no telling how you're going to react so the only sensible thing to do is to take every precaution you can, not only for yourself but for others around you. Your loved ones or just the people that come close to you - you don't know if they're infected or if your infected or if they have a variant. The only thing to do is to remember that you are fragile, and anything you can do to protect yourself is worth doing. Now that I have been vaccinated, I would hope that everybody remembers that getting vaccinated is our march toward getting back to normal.”
Jim and Charlene tell me their goal is to eventually be able to get out and play some golf together and ride their bikes. Charlene says, “We have a tandem bike hanging in the garage that really needs some riding, but who knows. We have been told it will take at least a year to get back to where we were before all this.”
You can be sure as they work toward those goals and furthered recovery, Jim and Charlene will appreciate every day together.
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