Don Force never expected a hero’s send-off.

But as he left the Spectrum Health intensive care unit, music played and staff members erupted into cheers.

It was a one-bed parade, with Don as the only attraction.

“They were lined up and down the hallway, hooting and hollering,” he said. “It was cool.”

After 10 days battling COVID-19 in the medical ICU, Don achieved a victory worth celebrating: He was off the ventilator, breathing on his own and moving to a regular hospital room.

And that was a moment to savor, not only for Don, but for his many medical caregivers.

“It is so good to have victories,” said Bobbi Jo Whitefield, BSN. “It is incredibly heartwarming.”

Don and his wife, Cindy, credit his progress to a team that stretches from the hospital staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to their family and friends in Howard City, and even to heaven itself.

“I think it is wonderful. It shows the power of prayer,” Cindy said. “And it shows he is strong-willed and he is fighting.”

Don, a 60-year-old retired tow truck driver, developed a cough in late March. He didn’t think it could be caused by the novel coronavirus at first.

“To tell the truth, I thought I was doing real good staying away from people and washing my hands twice as much as normal,” he said.

One evening a new symptom developed: Don had trouble breathing.

He told his wife, “You got to call someone. I can’t breathe. I feel funny.”

When the first responders arrived, they put him on oxygen and rushed him to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

At first, Don went to a medical-surgical unit on the ninth floor. When his condition deteriorated, he transferred to the ICU with acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Visits via iPad

In the ICU, the staff put him on a ventilator for support and to keep healthy levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in his blood, said Stephen Fitch, MD, a pulmonologist with the ICU.

For up to 16 hours a day, Don lay on his stomach, in a prone position.

“In people who have lung injury, they often will have improvement in oxygen levels in their blood if they are put on their stomach,” Dr. Fitch said.

Because of state-required restrictions on visitors, Cindy could not be by her husband’s side.

His nurse, Alyssa Wilson, RN, brought an iPad into the room so Cindy could visit with her husband through video.

Even with Don sedated and on a ventilator, she said, “I could tell it was him. I could see his chest going up and down and see that he was breathing. He was being watched over really good.”

As his condition slowly improved, the staff weaned him from sedation.

“I could tell he was determined to get out of the ICU, which was kind of cool,” Wilson said.

One day, she raised the hospital bed so Don could see Cindy on the iPad during their video visit.

“If you can hear me, I love you,” Cindy said.

Don responded with a thumbs-up.

Welcome back

Once Don could again breathe on his own, he graduated from the ICU with the victor’s send-off.

To his surprise, the celebration continued when he arrived back at the ninth-floor unit where his hospital stay had begun.

Staff members, excited to see him return, lined the hall and cheered as the Rocky theme song “Eye of the Tiger” played.

Whitefield greeted him at the elevator and introduced herself as his nurse. And when she said she was pleased to meet him, that was an understatement.

“To see someone healing and recovering and able to come back to our floor in stable condition is such a tremendous thing,” Whitefield said. “It gives me goosebumps.

“We got to care for him again and get his legs about him, so he could go home.”

The ninth-floor unit team plans to host a graduation celebration for every patient transferring in from the ICU, said nurse manager Lauren Nichol, MSN, RN.

“It is so meaningful for patients and for our team,” she said. “It’s a time to reflect on what we have accomplished and really celebrate each and every patient we have made a difference with.”

In the ICU, also, each recovery from COVID-19 is a cheer-worthy moment.

“It’s such a huge lift for the team that has done such incredible work—the nurses, the respiratory therapists, the environmental services workers and all the staff,” Dr. Fitch said. “So many people are trying to make sure we are ready to absorb this unprecedented situation.”

Looking forward to home

A few days after he left the ICU, Don achieved his next victory—discharge from the hospital. He transferred to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital for therapy to rebuild strength lost during two weeks of hospitalization.

“It has been quite a journey for him,” Cindy said.

“It was tough,” Don said. “A couple of times I thought, ‘Are you done with me now, Lord? Or have you got more work for me to do?’”

Now he has his sights set on the day he can return home to Cindy. And he looks forward to spoiling his cat, Deeks.

For others, he has a word of caution about protecting themselves from COVID-19.

“Take it very, very seriously,” he said. “When they tell you that, they are not kidding.”