Denver man “damn lucky” to survive COVID-19 after 158 days in hospital
After 158 days of ventilators, trachea tubes, oxygen machines and physical therapy, Nate McWilliams on Thursday walked out of Swedish Medical Center happy — and lucky — to be alive after suffering from COVID-19.
More than 100 staff members cheered his recovery as he exited an elevator with a nurse pushing his wheelchair and another toting his oxygen tank. At the hospital’s front door, McWilliams’ wheelchair stopped, he put on the parking brakes, stood and slowly lifted his arms above his head and shook his fists.
Then McWilliams, who wasn’t vaccinated when he got sick in June, walked out as a man with a message for the unvaccinated.
“Get the shot,” he said. “Don’t wait. Because you don’t want to go through this.”
McWilliams’ release after more than five months in the hospital was celebrated by the staff that has been overwhelmed with patients since the coronavirus arrived in Colorado in March 2020. But the celebration comes as Gov. Jared Polis announced that the new omicron variant was discovered in Colorado and as the state’s death toll this week surpassed 9,000 people.
Dr. Mary Warner, Swedish’s associate chief medical officer and a pulmonary critical care specialist, intubated McWilliams and put him on a ventilator in the ICU in July. When he failed to respond to that treatment, the Swedish medical team decided to put him on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, or ECMO, so his lungs could have a break. The machine pumps a person’s blood outside the body and replaces carbon dioxide with oxygen when the lungs aren’t able to do so. The move kept McWilliams alive.
Not every patient meets the criteria for the treatment, and those who receive it require a lot of specialized care from a team of 15 to 20 providers, Warner said. And ECMO machines are in limited supply. Swedish has five at its Englewood medical center where McWilliams was treated.
“We don’t want people to think if they get sick they’ll put me on that fancy ECMO machine,” Warner said.
Seeing McWilliams walk out of the hospital was a boost to the doctors, nurses and other medical staff who cared for him. But Warner described McWilliams as “damn lucky” to have survived the virus and she advised the unvaccinated to get the shot as soon as possible.
As she spoke Thursday, her cell phone dinged with messages from COVID patients in her ICU. Everyone on a ventilator Thursday was unvaccinated, she said.
“This entire experience could have been prevented with one shot,” she said.
As for McWilliams, he still has a long way to go to return to full strength and his job as a delivery truck driver.
But with the worst part of the virus behind him, he said he couldn’t wait to get to his Denver home with his wife, Brenda Bailey, and help decorate their house for Christmas. He also craved barbecued ribs.
“When I get home I want to work hard. I want to put up the lights, but they won’t let me,” McWilliams said. “I love Christmas.”
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