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When Jack Smith and his wife left their Fayetteville, N.C., home for a pandemic-delayed family wedding in Elmira, N.Y., they had no idea he’d soon be fighting for his life hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania. After a two-month-long odyssey that involved a helicopter life-flight, three hospitals, and 11 days on a ventilator, Jack finally made it home with help from the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute’s inpatient unit at UPMC Williamsport.

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An Interrupted Trip

Jack, 60, never made it to the wedding celebration. He started feeling sick soon after arriving at the hotel in Elmira and eventually tested positive for COVID-19. When he took a turn for the worse a few days later, his wife — a nurse educator like him — rushed Jack to a small community hospital where he was immediately intubated. He was then whisked by helicopter to a more advanced care hospital in Sayre, Pa.

“Thank goodness my wife recognized I was in respiratory distress,” says Jack. “I would have died.”

Jack spent 18 days in the hospital, including 11 days on a ventilator. As he slowly recovered, his wife began asking about inpatient rehabilitation. “They weren’t doing any rehab after extubating me. I was languishing there,” says Jack. “I knew inpatient rehab was my only way to get back home.”

They tried finding a rehab facility back home in the Fayetteville area, but no facility was accepting post-COVID patients. Then a hospital social worker recommended the inpatient rehab unit at UPMC Williamsport 80 miles to the south.

Taking “Baby Steps”

When Jack arrived at UPMC Williamsport, he was excited. He also was completely helpless.

“I couldn’t do anything on my own. I couldn’t walk. I could barely hold a cup to drink from a straw. I was exhausted,” says Jack. “I knew rehab was the only way I’d get any better.”

Jack describes his progress in rehab as “taking baby steps.” He’d lost so much physical strength during his lengthy illness that it was like starting over again. His first goal: to walk to the bathroom.

Initially, he needed help just to sit up in bed. But within a couple days, he was able to go to the bathroom on his own. Over the next 19 days, Jack slowly regained more and more strength. He moved from a wheelchair to a walker, then a cane, and eventually was able to walk without support.

Physical and Occupational Therapy

Each day, he spent about four hours working with various rehab therapists. Physical therapists guided him through strength-building exercises and stretches, walking, and going up and down steps. Occupational therapists worked with him on activities of daily living — getting in and out of bed, brushing his teeth, and washing up. And because he also experienced brain fog and cognitive issues from both COVID and anesthesia while on the ventilator, a speech therapist worked with him on reading and comprehension. Also key to Jack’s recovery was the outstanding nursing care he received, he says.

“It was slow, but I was motivated,” says Jack. “Every night in bed, I’d review my progress and set goals for the next day. Everyone in the rehab unit was so encouraging and supportive. They knew when to push me and when to ease up on me.”

Home Again

As a retired Air Force nurse corps officer, Jack was familiar with the role of nurses and therapists in rehabilitation. But he was especially impressed with the work ethic and culture of his entire care team at UPMC Williamsport.

“They worked nonstop,” says Jack. “Their attitude, teamwork, and camaraderie were incredible. I can’t say enough good things about the care I received. I have a profound respect for everyone there. They were professional, competent, and caring.”

Finally, more than six weeks after leaving North Carolina, Jack walked out of UPMC Williamsport and headed home. Since then, he has continued outpatient therapy and walks at least a mile every day. He looks forward to returning to work in 2022 preparing nursing students for their national licensing exam.

“I’d like to give everyone at UPMC Williamsport a great big hug and thank you,” says Jack. “They gave me my life back and I am so grateful.”

About UPMC Rehabilitation Institute

The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute offers inpatient, outpatient, and transitional rehabilitation, as well as outpatient physician services so that care is available to meet the needs of our patients at each phase of the recovery process. Renowned physiatrists from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, as well as highly trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists, provide individualized care in 12 inpatient units within acute care hospitals and over 80 outpatient locations close to home and work.