“Advanced medicine is nothing without the people.”
“One minute I’m having Sunday family dinner. [The next week], my wife is at home in isolation, and I’m in the hospital, not doing well. Our daughter is pregnant and in the ICU.”
2020 was a year like no other for the Johnson family. Dr. Darren Johnson has been an orthopaedic surgeon at UK HealthCare for 28 years. His wife, Nancy, is a nurse and currently works at Good Samaritan Hospital. Their three children also work in the medical field, and their middle daughter, Kelsey, is a labor and delivery nurse at UK HealthCare. As a household of healthcare professionals, they were at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic—but nothing could have prepared them for their personal experience with the virus.
Dr. Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 on a Tuesday in November of 2020, with very few symptoms. By Friday, Nancy followed with symptoms of her own, and tested positive on Saturday. Sunday night, Kelsey’s husband Kyle didn’t feel well either.
“Kelsey was 20 weeks pregnant at the time, and she’s a severe asthmatic,” said Nancy. “So we immediately pulled Kyle back over with us. He stayed over here to try to isolate from her. But by Tuesday she had symptoms.” Kelsey called her obstetrician and was immediately admitted to UK HealthCare’s Albert B. Chandler Hospital, and things started to change drastically for the Johnsons.
A week into his diagnosis, Dr. Johnson’s condition was becoming worse. He suffered from extreme fatigue, severe headaches, coughing, and struggled to breathe. “I took him to the emergency room,” said Nancy. “He walks through those emergency doors, and then that’s it. Complete and total helplessness. I sat in the parking lot, waiting for information. It’s the worst nightmare for a nurse or family member. All I could do was pray. I asked friends and family for prayers. I couldn’t contribute one thing to help my husband or my daughter. I had to put all my trust in UK HealthCare to take care of them.”
“When I was admitted, we thought 24 hours at most and I’d leave. But things changed very quickly,” said Kelsey. She was very sick, and her oxygen levels were getting worse. Kelsey was placed on the highest level of high flow oxygen, and was faced with worries about her family in addition to her own condition.
“They were trying to shield me from my dad’s condition, but it was hard to know that I’m sitting here in the ICU, and he’s sitting there going for an emergency PE scan. And my husband has COVID at home with our two-year-old alone for 16 days, and they can’t leave the house. That was really hard. But also being sick, there was nothing I could do.”
“I was all alone and just couldn’t breathe,” said Dr. Johnson. As an outgoing person who’s used to being in control, isolation hit him especially hard. The personal care he received from his nursing staff helped him through the worst of his condition—and one person stood out. Alexis Zody, a recent nursing graduate, reassured Dr. Johnson he was going to get through his ordeal. It made a difference, and his health slowly started to improve.
“You have limited time [with your patients], but you make the most of it by being present and engaging,” said Alexis. “Working with Dr. Johnson’s family was incredible. It was important to increase communication so he could know what’s going on, communicate with his wife and his daughter in the hospital. I made it a point to be positive. I get to be a part of something so big. I get to care for these patients who are alone and extremely scared and anxious. You’ve got a lot on your plate going in, but it’s definitely worth it, and it’s so rewarding.”
“That care was a huge difference and a turning point for him,” said Nancy.
But as Dr. Johnson’s condition improved, Kelsey was getting worse. She was maxing out on high flow oxygen and needed to be moved to the ICU. Her situation was becoming more unstable, and her health continued to spiral. Her doctors were afraid that she would end up on a ventilator and her other organ systems would start to fail. The next 24 hours were imperative to Kelsey’s survival. “We prayed, I asked everybody that I knew to pray,” said Nancy. “And the amazing thing that is within 24 hours, she was coming down off the high flow. We needed that 24 hours to be different, and thank God that they were.”
“I didn’t start to feel better, but I just realized that I wasn’t getting worse, and that I was able to just do a little bit more,” said Kelsey. “I was able to get up and take a shower and push myself a little bit more. I didn’t feel as miserable when I got back in the bed.”
After nine days in the hospital, Dr. Johnson was released, but was still on oxygen. Kelsey was released after 16 days, also on oxygen. Both father and daughter spent the next month on oxygen, recovering at home, and have since resumed work on the frontlines of health care. The effects of the virus linger for both of them, with shortness of breath and increased heart rate. But the worst is behind them, and brighter days are ahead: Kelsey welcomed a healthy baby girl in April of 2021.
“COVID is for some, lethal. And it has no real rhyme or reason about who that person is,” said Nancy. “It made us realize that it is a force to be reckoned with and I don’t think we respected it to the full level before we got it that we do now. We’ve always worn masks and followed the rules to help somebody else, not to help ourselves. And I see that a lot differently now because we went through the worst of the worst and could have lost two family members.”
“In the last year we’ve had in this country, we have thrown around the term heroes,” said Dr. Johnson. “Sitting there in that room for nine days alone, you get about an hour of human interaction. Those personal interactions of doctors and nurses who take the risk and come in our rooms, they saved my life. There’s no bigger hero than those people that work on that floor.”
“To me, The Power of Advanced Medicine means the latest in technology,” said Dr. Johnson “But it’s actually the power of people that work here at UK HealthCare, from the emergency room to the nursing staff. I cannot thank those people enough to be quite honest with you. Because to me, they saved our lives.”