Chris Vandergraph knew his complex medical history put him at risk for COVID-19.
Despite taking precautions, the 62-year-old Church of God pastor ended up in the emergency room with shortness of breath, fever and a bad cough.
At first, it appeared the grandfather of nine was holding his own against the virus. Then, Chris developed pneumonia, went into respiratory failure and was placed on a ventilator. From there, complications cascaded, outpacing resources at his local hospital.
Transferred to Missouri Baptist Medical Center’s (MoBap) intensive care unit, he endured a brain bleed, lung blood clot, significant mental confusion, stiff joints and inflamed blood vessels. In extreme pain, Chris was placed on a regimen of intravenous steroids, blood thinners and antibiotics. Unable to liberate from the ventilator, he received a tracheostomy and feeding tube.
One month later, Chris’ condition stabilized and he was transferred to Select Specialty Hospital – Town and Country, located on MoBap’s fifth floor, for ongoing medical management and multiple therapies.
Chris doesn’t remember much of the hospital stay, but later recalled a comforting vision he’d experienced.
In tremendous pain, Chris prayed for a God to take him home.
“I found myself in a peaceful state of mind,” he said. “In the absence of my body, I found myself in the presence of the Lord. He was standing beside a door and would not let me pass through it because people were blocking the way. I later learned on that very day, all the local pastors of the surrounding communities held a prayer vigil in my church’s parking lot.”
Chris said the message was clear: God wasn’t letting him give up.
His wife, Cindy, and the family and congregation needed Chris back so a physician-led team, including nurses and therapists, created a recovery plan to deliver.
Within the first 72 hours, Chris was weaned from powerful pain medication, lifting some of the mental fog.
Respiratory therapists then started to gradually drop back ventilator settings, testing whether Chris’ lungs were ready to do more work. Over several weeks, they stepped through deep breathing, chest exercises and monitored bursts of time off the ventilator, increasing Chris’ stamina and lung capacity.
He was grateful for a pair of nursing assistants who not only carefully turned him to prevent pressure injuries, but they also spent time quelling the anxiety that sometimes crept in and to overcame him.
Simultaneously, physical and occupational therapists began a mobility program encouraging Chris to sit up in bed, roll and move to its edge. As recovery progressed, he moved into a chair, increasing core strength. Over time, resistance exercises were added to build up arm and leg muscles. Nurses guided movement and made sure he was comfortable.
After a month, Chris reached his first major goal and successfully liberated from the ventilator. His tracheostomy was fitted with a speaking valve, and he reveled in holding video calls with his wife and grandkids.
He also tried to tell his church family he was retiring, but they said they’d wait. They wanted him back at the pulpit first. Again, Chris laughed, who was he to argue with God?
Speech therapists began to lead mouth, tongue and jaw exercises that improved Chris’ swallowing reflexes, while dietitians crafted a meal plan rich in healing nutrients. The feeding tube was removed and Chris began eating regular foods.
Finally, he reached his second goal – breathing independently. His airway support was discontinued.
Ready for the next step, Chris was discharged to an inpatient rehabilitation facility where he spent several weeks focusing on daily physical and occupational therapy, rebuilding his ability to walk and care for personal needs, before returning home.
Recently, to the great joy of his family and congregation, Chris stepped back behind the pulpit to share his story of faith and survival.
He looks forward to retiring to spend time on his 13-acre farm caring for its animals and getting together with family.