When Paul Schalbach’s wife, Linda, and sister came down with the coronavirus, they recovered in a few days.
“I thought I would, too,” said Paul, 67.
Instead, his cough and shortness of breath worsened, and Linda drove him to the emergency room. There, Paul fell into respiratory failure. When scans revealed COVID-19 and pneumonia, he was placed on his stomach, giving his lungs more room to breathe.
Three days later, Paul received a tracheostomy for airway support and was placed on a ventilator. His kidneys failed, requiring dialysis.
By the middle of June, Paul began to slowly come around. Intravenous antibiotics treated the pneumonia and he stabilized.
It was the answer to Linda’s prayers. She could now consider the next step in Paul’s recovery. She chose Select Specialty Hospital – Johnstown for its experience treating medically complex patients, including those recovering from COVID-19.
Paul arrived unable to breathe, speak, eat or move on his own. Yet, he marveled at his survival.
“I had no reason to be alive,” he said. “I was very sick.”
A physician-led team, including nurses and therapists, created a plan to get Paul back to his family.
Physical therapists began a mobility program, encouraging him to roll and sit up in bed. They started working on getting Paul to its edge.
A week later, Paul experienced airway support complications and returned to the referring hospital for a brief stay. He insisted on resuming therapy at Select Specialty Hospital – Johnstown.
On his second day back, the physical therapist walked into Paul’s room and announced it was time to try standing.
“I did it for three seconds,” Paul said. “Then the next day, the therapy team came in and said, ‘OK, we’re going to stand you again.’ I told them they were crazy. But I stood for six seconds. That’s when the lights turned on. It was up to me. I have a family to go home to. I have a wife, children and grandchildren. I had to work hard.”
From then on, Paul eagerly embraced each opportunity for therapy. He worked with respiratory therapists on breathing, coughing and chest exercises to enhance stamina and lung capacity. Within two weeks, he was removed from all breathing support.
Occupational therapists deployed a variety of exercises to strengthen his grip, grasp and arm movements. After building skill, he tackled larger tasks, such as brushing his teeth and hair.
Paul made so much progress, he earned recognition as the therapy staff’s “Patient of the Week.” He beamed with pride as they presented a certificate.
Speech pathologists stepped in to retrain Paul’s throat, tongue and jaw muscles to form words and swallow. Repeated verbal exercises, cognitive challenges and testing allowed him to speak clearly. Due to the amount of time spent on a ventilator, Paul’s swallowing reflexes were weak. Still, he was strong enough to have his feeding tube removed and resume a modified soft diet.
In a month, Paul met all his goals and was ready to go home. He did not even need in-home assistants. He was ready to “take care of Linda, now” and spoke with pride of how employees of the family’s construction business kept it going during his illness.
Most of all, he was grateful for all the care and support he received from the team at Select Specialty Hospital – Johnstown. He plans to frame his “Patient of the Week” certificate and give it a place of honor in his office – a testament to the power of hope and healing in the face of a global pandemic.