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‘Had to learn again:’ After 3 months, Covid long hauler fights to get back to normal

<i>WLOS</i><br/>For some who get COVID-19
For some who get COVID-19

By Caitlyn Penter

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    BRYSON CITY, North Carolina (WLOS) — For some who get COVID-19, their battle continues far after the initial illness. These individuals are commonly referred to as COVID ‘long haulers.’

59-year-old Jim Vautier is one of them.

“He’s had to learn again” After 3 months, COVID long hauler fights to get back to normal

Jim, who lives with his wife in Bryson City, has been fighting his way back to normal after getting COVID-19 in July.

It’s a journey that nearly killed him.

“It just crushed me,” he said.

Before he got sick, Jim was very active. He played soccer for the Navy in college and loved mountain biking.

Since the pandemic, he went to the gym and the grocery store, but his wife Becky said that was it. He didn’t have any underlying conditions, and wasn’t taking any medications.

He and Becky felt safe, she said, and hadn’t chosen to get the vaccine when Jim got sick. Becky eventually got COVID-19 too, but not nearly as severe.

“You think they’ll give you some antibiotics and then you’ll just be better,” Jim said.

Within days of getting COVID-19, Jim got admitted to the ICU at Harris Regional. Medical staff did everything they could: changing sleeping positions, plasma treatment and more.

Within two weeks he had to be intubated.

For the next two weeks, Jim stayed in the ICU. Medical staff then decided he was healthy enough to be moved to Mission’s Asheville Specialty Hospital, a long-term acute care hospital.

“Jim first arrived, he had very little muscle tone; he was unable to breath on his own,” said Greg Hunt, a respiratory therapist supervisor who has worked with Jim since he arrived at the specialty hospital.

Jim spent a few weeks at Asheville Specialty Hospital. Becky said he would take a few steps forward, then a few steps back.

In mid-September, Jim took a turn for the worse and had to go back to the ICU.

“It really was devastating because we all had been rooting for him to get better,” said Sarah Williams, one of Jim’s nurses.

Becky said she rushed over to the hospital as Jim was being loaded on an ambulance.

“Everything was failing, he had said ‘I’m done,’ eyes rolling up in the head and he was gone,” Becky said.

However, Jim kept fighting. He ended up being able to go back to Asheville Specialty Hospitality.

“One of the nurses said when we came back, ‘I hate to tell you this but I was checking the obituaries in Bryson City,’” Becky said, adding that staff members cried when Jim came back.

Jim started walking this past Friday, more than three months after he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Getting up and walking is a pretty big deal because then you’re like, ‘OK, I can do this,’” he said.

Jim has a whole team of staff helping him along.

“Jim has had to learn to eat again, walk again, basic things that we take for granted; he’s had to learn again,” said Williams.

His months-long fight is not unique.

“Multiple patients, I can’t even put a number to it, some successful, in Jim’s case, some unfortunately not,” said Hunt.

Jim and Becky now plan on getting the vaccine.

As his fight continues, Jim says he’s thankful for everyone that has helped him get to this point, especially his wife.

He says he wants to see his dogs and his family, and be able to sit on his porch. That’s his goal now.

“The light at the end of the tunnel, it’s getting brighter now; it’s getting closer,” Jim said.

He just wants to go home.

“We both served in the Navy and so I say, well I’m treating it like you’re on deployment going to hold down the house while you’re on your ship and you’re out at sea,” Becky continued, “He should be home by the holidays, and so that’s a blessing, I mean it just is.”

This week is National Respiratory Care Week. Becky and Jim said they are so thankful for all the help they have received from medical staff throughout his recovery.

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