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The Miracle of Recovery

Published June 2023 | In Spring 2023

When people suffer catastrophic illness or injury, sometimes they recover in ways that defy expectations

The Miracle of Recovery Media

From bad to worse

When long-haul trucker Don Wood got sick while on the road to Colorado in December 2021, he couldn’t anticipate the hardships and challenges that were ahead of him. When he left his home in Spearfish, he was perfectly healthy. By the time he returned, however, he was sick, and it was quickly getting serious.

“I left on Monday to make my deliveries to lumber yards in Colorado and Wyoming, and by the time I got back that Saturday, I wasn’t feeling well at all,” he said. As soon as he got home that day his wife, Patty Wood, helped get him to the hospital to be tested for COVID-19. “I got tested and sure enough it was COVID-19,” Don said, “When that came back, they hospitalized me right away.”

From there, things went from bad to worse for Don, as he developed some of the most severe complications from COVID-19. Just four days after Christmas, he went into cardiac arrest. “He was in Spearfish hospital for the first couple weeks, then he coded, so they sent him to Rapid City,” said Patty. At Rapid City Hospital, he was taken to the ICU and placed on a ventilator. He was there for five-and-a-half weeks.

During the height of the pandemic, the mortality rate for COVID-19 patients on ventilators was between 50 and 97 percent. Don was fighting for his life, and the odds were against him. Even if he did survive, his doctors were concerned about potential long term brain damage.

“His neurologist ordered an EEG. There was very little brain activity, but I saw some. It wasn’t nothing,” Patty said. “So, after talking with the doctor, she recommended we wait a few more days and do another EEG. We just weren’t ready to give up on him.” That time was enough for Don to wake up. “I know a lot of people don’t believe in miracles, but we do. We got seven miracles, and Don waking up was the first.”

Difficult decisions

Don moved between nine hospitals and clinics in nearly as many months. Either to receive more specialized care or because there weren’t enough beds due to the pandemic.

He was airlifted to Scottsbluff, Neb., where his health began to turn around, even though things looked grim when he arrived. The receiving physician had to perform a bronchoscopy. His lungs were so full of fluid that doctors didn’t have high hopes of recovery. “The person who does the life flights came to visit me. He didn’t think I was going to make it when I came in, and he ended up giving me his cap. He said he was rooting for me.” Don pointed to the red baseball cap he was wearing and continued, “I call it my $51,000 cap!”


Don pointed to the red baseball cap he was wearing and continued, “I call it my $51,000 cap!”

It was in Scottsbluff where they were finally able to get Don back on solid food. “When I went into the hospital, I weighed 230 pounds. When I finally woke up and they took me off the ventilators, I had lost 100 pounds,” he said.

After he stabilized and was able to eat again, the hospital was ready to discharge him. “I was in a wheelchair. I was so weak, and I couldn’t walk. They said there wasn’t anything more they could do for me, and they were discharging me.”

It was recommended that Don be placed in an assisted living facility. For the Woods, that was completely out of the question. "We said no,” Patty said. “He didn't want to be in a nursing home, and I didn’t want him there either. He wouldn't have been happy that way.” They decided to try physical therapy. This eventually brought Don back home to Spearfish, where he started physical therapy at Monument Health. “That was when we really started to notice a difference,” Patty said, “We came here, and Don was in a wheelchair, and 14 months later he was walking.”


Starting recovery

Matt Weigel, Physical Therapist, and Meagan Stephens, Occupational Therapist, at Monument Health Rehabilitation in Spearfish were part of Don’s recovery team. Matt said when Don came in he wasn’t sure what to expect. “COVID-19 was a new thing and people in Don’s position often wouldn’t survive to start physical therapy. We didn’t have a ton of data.”

Matt started with small, attainable goals. Don was on six liters of oxygen a day, and Matt didn’t want to push him too far, too fast. “We would just do exercises lying down, then a couple standing exercises,” Matt said. “Eventually, we were able to use some of the leg machines. After that, we started to see Don walking a little bit, but not a ton.”

Don’s lungs were particularly concerning. COVID-19 had done a lot of damage, and there was a lot of scarring. Matt said, “He was on quite a lot of oxygen when he came in. His lungs aren’t ever going to be how they were before he got sick, but I didn’t expect to see anywhere near as much recovery as we did.”

After Don’s physical therapy, Meagan would take over for his occupational therapy. Like physical therapy, occupational therapy went slowly. “We were on a separate schedule because he could not tolerate two therapies in a row, so PT and OT were always on separate days,” she said. “If we were back-to-back, therapy wouldn’t have been as effective.”

While Matt focused on Don’s strength, mobility and endurance, Meagan helped Don learn how to do everyday tasks to help make him more independent. “Patty was helping Don with 90 percent of his active daily living tasks. Things like helping him get dressed, getting in and out of the bathroom, showering — all the small things we take for granted,” said Meagan. “We wondered if we would ever get him back to that full independence. Could we get him to the point where he was able to tie his shoes without getting exhausted? By October we had him doing all those things for himself.”


From small successes to big wins Don was hitting his goals, and the focus shifted from seeing the most he could hope to do, to seeing how far he could go. “We started with these very basic goals, like standing up from furniture, or having him walk across a room on his own,” Matt remembered. “And Don was putting in the work and hitting all of these goals. These were just basic things a person needs to do every day, but they seemed lofty at first.”

As Don started to achieve these goals Matt said more things suddenly seemed possible. “I started to ask questions like, ‘Can you make yourself lunch or walk to the mailbox?’ ‘Can we actually get outside with oxygen?’ ‘Can you get down the stairs?’ It opened up my eyes. We’d talk about what he wanted to accomplish, and we kept going and broke past what we thought was the top limit.”

Don remembered a very special milestone he was able to reach. “I had whiskey and my coffee that I wanted to be able to reach. It was really high up, and I just wanted to be able to stand tall and balance on my own to get it. I was able to finally reach up there and get my whiskey, my coffee and my filters on my own.”

Meagan remembered setting that goal. “We were going to get the whiskey behind the coffee. It’s funny but that's a lot of what occupational therapy looks like, getting back those little things we do every day.” She and Matt worked as a team to reach their goals, often checking in with each other to see what milestones Don was able to achieve. Another major achievement sticks out in Meagan’s mind. “I'll never forget the day when I saw their car pull up and Don stepped out of the driver's seat and grabbed his oxygen. I ran to Matt, and said, ‘Don just drove here!’ He walked in so proud.”

Patty looks back at that time now and remembers the support she had from her family, the work Matt and Meagan put into bringing some normalcy back into their lives and her husband’s strength. “You know, it's funny, he had the right attitude, and he worked so hard at it. He really wanted to get better, and he was used to being a normal person. It was hard for him to lose that, so he worked hard to get it back.” 

Meagan agreed and said that it can be a hard battle. “When that independence is taken away from you, it can be frustrating and tiresome. To be able to retrain your body, to regain that strength is a huge victory.”

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