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Norfolk man takes 'baby steps' in COVID recovery

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Sitting in her husband’s hospital room at Hamilton General, Sarah VanNetten had “the talk you don’t want to receive.”

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“I was told that his back was against the wall and Mike had to start making some steps, or else,” she said of her husband, Mike VanNetten, a 45-year-old chicken farmer from Norfolk County who has been in hospital with COVID-19 since April 8.

It seems Mike — known to his many friends as “Chicken” — was listening.

“The next day, Mike just started making these baby steps to get better,” Sarah said. “Baby steps in our world, but leaps and bounds in his world.”

Mike’s circulation and lung function improved to the point that he came off the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine on May 10.

Going on ECMO — an artificial heart-lung bypass machine — is often a last resort for terminal COVID-19 patients. Seeing Mike free of the machine was a major boost for Sarah and their four children, and the hundreds of people across the country who are praying for his recovery.

“I know what the ECMO does,” Sarah said. “I know what the stats are on it, and I know that he is extremely lucky that he got off of it.”

Since her husband was hospitalized after inexplicably catching the virus — the family took COVID-19 precautions seriously and only left the house to work — Sarah has become an outspoken advocate for following public health measures and getting vaccinated.

“To watch what this does to people’s lungs — it’s horrible,” she said. “This is a horrible virus that just wrecks your body.”

Earlier in May, Sarah rejoiced when Mike slightly opened one eye after weeks under heavy sedation to give his tattered lungs time to heal. Now he can open both eyes and has many lucid moments.

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“He can actually see who I am,” Sarah said.

Being off ECMO means Mike no longer has what Sarah described as “a giant needle sticking out of his neck.” Doctors also took out his breathing tube, replacing it with a tracheostomy tube because he still needs mechanical help to breathe.

“As frightening as it sounds — they cut a hole in your neck, basically — it’s far less invasive,” Sarah said.

“He has his mouth free now — there’s not a giant tube stuck down it.”

Doctors unhook Mike’s ventilator to let him breathe on his own for brief periods, and he spends several hours a day on high-flow oxygen to restore his lung function.

Sarah visits every day, celebrating each milestone with Mike’s medical team.

“They are so excited for Mike — all the nurses, the doctors,” she said.

“It’s a testimony to their skill, to the power of the prayers Mike’s been receiving, and to their amazing efforts.”

Mike cleared another hurdle on May 12 when he tested negative for COVID-19 and moved down the hall to the COVID recovery ward of the ICU.

After weeks of watching her husband lay still, Sarah was overjoyed as the nurses recently helped him to a sitting position, his legs dangling over the side of the bed.

“That was huge, because your lungs can work so much better from a seated position,” she said.

Mike still rests most of the day, gathering strength for the painful road to recovery.

“They are going to work him hard. It’s going to be uncomfortable at this stage, but he has to just persevere through,” Sarah said.

“He’s fighting so hard. You can just see it. He knows what he has to live for.”

J.P. Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter based at the Hamilton Spectator. The initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

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