The last thing Brenda “B.J.” Hansell said before going on a ventilator March 31, 2020, was to ask if she would be out of the hospital in time for her granddaughter’s first birthday in June. No one knew the answer to her question, since these were the early frightening days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and B.J. most certainly had a bad case of the coronavirus.
But thanks to the talent and dedication of the staff at Lehigh Valley Hospital (LVH)–Muhlenberg in Bethlehem, B.J. did indeed leave the hospital before her beloved Caroline’s birthday. And also thanks to B.J.’s determination and the efforts of her physical and occupational therapists, today she is back to almost 100%, breathing normally and looking forward to a future of travel and, naturally, being with family.
“I’ve seen my chart. I almost died at least once or twice,” B.J. says from her home in Burnsville, Minn., where she and her husband, Doug, moved to from Easton in August 2020. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” the 61-year-old B.J. says about her caregivers last year. “They are consummate professionals. Not just with the technology part of it, but with the personal part of it.”
Pre-COVID, B.J. had been relatively healthy, although she was diagnosed with a mild case of Parkinson’s disease in December 2018. But in March 2020, her health journey took a turn after B.J., a retired respiratory therapist and clinical research associate, visited a neighbor in Easton who shortly thereafter tested positive for COVID-19.
“A couple weeks later, I started feeling poorly,” B.J. says, noting that she felt tired and had a low-grade fever and malaise (tiredness). She continued to feel worse and, during a second video chat with a Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) physician on Friday, March 27, 2020, was advised to monitor her situation over the weekend. An LVHN nurse called B.J. on Sunday, when an appointment was made for her to see a physician the next day.
That appointment never occurred. Instead, Doug took B.J. to the emergency room at LVH–Muhlenberg after she awoke at 3 a.m. with a 103-degree temperature. “The last thing I remember is going to the ER,” B.J. says.
“The next thing I remember is when I was in rehab in the long-term acute care unit managed by Good Shepherd,” she says, referring to Good Shepherd Specialty Hospital near LVH–Muhlenberg. That was in late April, after 30 days in the intensive care unit (ICU) at LVH–Muhlenberg.
Caring for B.J. and her family
It had been a difficult month, to be sure. In the first week of April, B.J. began to get secondary infections, and her liver function test results were worrisome, says Doug, also a respiratory therapist.
“When those things start happening, the prognosis is bad,” Doug says. “Many of those nights when I went to bed, I fully expected a phone call to say that she was dying.”
The physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists at LVH–Muhlenberg didn’t let that happen. They kept B.J. alive by fine-tuning medications, day-by-day and even hour-by-hour if necessary. “This is what you do in the ICU. Tomorrow is different than today,” says Doug, who spent 27 years in critical care. “They did this extraordinarily well, and the miracle is people cared and thought and really worked hard to pull her through. It’s not like you could open a book and see how to treat COVID-19,” he says.
Frequent communication kept family informed
While B.J. was in the hospital, Doug couldn’t see her because of COVID restrictions. But nurses, physicians and respiratory therapists called him daily to keep him abreast of his wife’s condition and treatment.
“Their efforts were incredible to try to keep me as involved as I possibly could be,” Doug says. “They were inundated, yet, they figured out a way to find time to talk to me. It was nothing short of remarkable.”
By the third week of April, COVID had run its course in B.J., but she remained on a ventilator because her upper airway was swollen. A tracheostomy was done April 22, and from that point she was slowly weaned off the ventilator as she learned how to breathe on her own.
B.J. returned to her Easton home May 29, 2020, after which she began outpatient physical therapy three days a week (for walking) and occupational therapy two days a week (for her shoulder and hands), both with Coordinated Health. Within 10 days, she no longer needed the walker and eventually no longer required physical therapy.
“I worked really, really hard to get rid of the walker,” B.J. says. “I have a new appreciation for folks who have to use a walker all of the time. There’s a lot more to it than you think.”
And, perhaps more importantly, B.J. and Doug were able to fly to Minnesota in June to see their birthday girl, Caroline. It’s such a close family that the Hansells permanently moved to Minnesota two months later to be nearer their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
Meanwhile, B.J.’s occupational therapy ended in Minnesota, and, in September, she and Doug traveled to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, which averages 8,000 feet in elevation.
“I was able to walk. No problems with breathing,” she says. “Which is amazing. Within four months, I was walking around at Yellowstone. Certainly that is a testament to all of the care I received in the hospital and also to my fortitude.”
Thanking her heroes
The couple’s travel also included a trip this spring to B.J.’s native Lehigh Valley (she’s a Dieruff High School graduate) for both Doug’s job and to see family. But she also wanted to meet her caregivers at LVH–Muhlenberg and at Good Shepherd near the Muhlenberg campus.
“They were thrilled to see how well I was doing,” B.J. says. “I told them I appreciated all their hard work. Having been a respiratory therapist, I appreciate what’s it like to care for someone on a ventilator. There’s a reason it’s called intensive care.”
Doug says it’s no exaggeration to say that the people at LVH–Muhlenberg are heroes, especially considering the unknowns about COVID at the time.
Time for travel
At home in Minnesota, B.J. is back to her daily activities, including gardening. Some days are better than others, and she is on medication to control a high heart rate and to control what she calls an annoying cough – two post-COVID effects. Overall, she says, she’s at 95% and has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, as are Doug and her extended family.
Doug, who is 64, plans to retire in a few years, after which the couple plans to travel even more.
“We hope to see as many national parks as possible,” B.J. says. “In fact, this coming September we’re returning to Yellowstone National Park to see the upper part of it. And we’re planning a trip to Hawaii next year.”
And, of course, they’re also planning to have many more birthday celebrations with their granddaughter.