There are a lot of things Mike VanNetten will never understand or remember about the 83 days he spent in hospital battling COVID-19.
And there are some things the 45-year-old chicken farmer and father of four from Norfolk County will never forget.
Walking out of Hamilton General Hospital under his own strength on June 30 is one.
“Seeing all those doctors, nurses, health-care workers cheering and clapping when I walked out of the hospital today, man it was something to see,” VanNetten said a couple of hours after being discharged. “I gotta tell you, I’ve got a lot of respect for the work they do.
VanNetten’s battle began April 8, when he developed problems breathing and felt fatigued. His wife, Sarah, took him to the emergency department at Simcoe’s Norfolk General Hospital.
VanNetten was diagnosed with COVID-19 and taken to a hospital in Burlington.
A few days later, he was airlifted to Hamilton General Hospital. There, he was heavily sedated and put on an oxygen machine — formally called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or ECMO — that helps keep alive patients who can’t breathe on their own. It is a treatment of last resort for COVID-19 patients. VanNetten spent more than month hooked up to the device.
“I don’t really remember much from those first 40 days and there’s a lot I don’t understand,” VanNetten said in a strong voice. “I had a lot of really weird dreams that don’t make any sense.
“About the only thing I remember are Sarah’s love taps.”
Sarah visited her husband in hospital daily.
“I couldn’t touch his face so the only thing I could do was touch his wrist,” she said. “So, at the end of my visit, I’d tap him on the wrist – once for every member of the family and the last one was always mine.”
She also kept friends, family and the community informed about his progress via social media.
“The care Mike has received is beyond anything I have ever experienced,” Sarah said. “The health-care team takes care of their patients, but they address the care of their loved ones, as well. They are angels in scrubs.”
VanNetten’s road to recovery started at the end of April when he was taken off the oxygen machine and started breathing through a tube, After testing negative for COVID-19, he was moved to another unit.
In addition to family and friends, the popular sports coach received support from the broader community, the Toronto Maple Leafs and a couple of retired NHLers – Ryan Vandenbussche, a native of Delhi, and Dave Hutchison, a former Leaf. He got support on social media and residents placed sports equipment under porch lights in front of their homes. Kaley’s restaurant in downtown Simcoe supported the family through a takeout fundraiser.
On May 23, VanNetten was able to go outdoors for the first time in more than a month.
Leaving hospital was another milestone.
“Mike and his family are wonderful, and we are very happy that he is able to go home,” Dr. Craig Ainsworth, cardiologist and intensivist at the HGH, said in a media release. “Mike is a true success story with ECMO in COVID patients. The staff and physicians who cared for Mike and patients like him work very hard every day for moments like this.”
“It was really emotional for all of us, including the medical staff,” Sarah said. “They have an extremely difficult job. They have to handle a lot of tragedy and sorrow.
“Mike is a success story and so I think it was pretty rewarding for them to see him walking out of the hospital on his own.”
So, what did the VanNettens do to celebrate?
“We stopped at an outdoor patio and had a beer,” Mike said. “I’m only allowed one so I’m drinking it real slow like.
“But let me tell you, after more than 83 days, this beer sure tastes good.”