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A COVID ‘Long Hauler’ Bethlehem Township resident Tom Brugger says he feels ‘pretty good now,’ a year after his hospitalization

Tom Brugger was living the good life as a 70-something semi-retiree. Healthy and high-energy, his days were a mix of exercise, walks with his wife, Joanne, and a part-time job in bar security.

Then COVID hit in March 2020, and their nightmare began.

Over the next six months, St. Luke’s caregivers refused to let the virus claim Tom’s life, as it did so many others. Through inpatient care and extensive home-based rehab, St. Luke’s doctors, nurses and therapists used all their knowledge, medicines and treatments to wrest Tom from the virus’s grasp.

The symptoms started mildly enough. At first, Tom and Joanne each had a minor cough and fever. After three days, Joanne had improved.

But Tom got worse … much worse. His temperature soared and his breathing became more and more labored as the virus raged in his lungs.

The 74-year-old Bethlehem Township man went to the St. Luke’s Anderson ER and was soon put in the ICU. His blood oxygen saturation level plummeted to 50 percent, almost half of what’s considered normal. He was connected to a ventilator (breathing machine) to improve his lung function.

“Tom was one of the first COVID patients admitted to the ICU,” says Jeffrey Jahre, MD, infectious disease specialist and St. Luke’s Senior VP of Medical Affairs, who was treating Tom. “This was the start of the pandemic and we didn’t have many answers.”

Tom and Joanne were shocked by his rapid decline. The athletic man worked out religiously for years. Despite having had open heart surgery in 2016, he kept himself in good shape and was upbeat.

After a few weeks in the ICU, he was weaned off the ventilator for a day, but soon needed it again, as the infection was unrelenting.

Joanne says it was touch-and-go for weeks for her husband of 49 years. A priest came to Tom’s bedside and gave him the Last Rites, his condition was so dire. But after five weeks of in ICU and having undergone many rounds of treatment with different medicines and supplements, Tom’s breathing and oxygen level slowly improved, and his fever fell.

Tom was transferred from the ICU to the specialized Acute Rehab Center (ARC) for COVID patients. He was off the ventilator and out of critical care, but he needed help getting back on his feet.

“Tom was profoundly weak, and was unable to sit, stand or walk and had trouble speaking, swallowing, breathing, and performing most basic living functions,” explains Geeta Sathe, MD, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist who was Tom’s attending physician in the ARC. “The virus had attacked his entire body.”

Tom received double portions of protein and carbohydrates in his food to bolster his nutrition, so he’d regain the strength and the 60 pounds he had lost.

“I tired so easily at first,” he says. “I couldn’t press the buttons on the TV remote, I was so weak.”

His weekly rehab sessions with several rehabilitation experts often totaled some 15 hours: physical, occupational, speech, breathing therapies –they slowly taught him to function again. He needed to relearn everything. At times, he was emotional, knowing he had survived a deadly virus that had robbed him of much more than that month that he lay in the ICU, his life in the balance. But Tom was committed to rehab, and he did more.

“He would do extra exercises in his bed at night to gain strength, improve his breathing and get off oxygen,” Dr. Sathe recalls. “He really wanted to get better.

“We started to see results in week three,” says Dr. Sathe. “He started standing with physical assistance and building on the skills he had learned in the weeks prior. This was his turning point in his rehab.”

Soon he was feeding and dressing himself and standing with a rolling walker more independently for the first time since March. His outlook brightened. He remained motivated, working harder than ever.

The payoff came in early June, when he was discharged from St. Luke’s ARC, with a plan for him to go home and begin rebuilding his life.

For three months, he worked intensely with St. Luke’s Home Health professionals and his wife to improve his mobility, build his strength, increase his endurance, improve his breathing and learn how to take care of himself at home. These focused sessions of PT and nursing, two to three times weekly, continued for several months until finally he was walking independently, driving and caring for himself without any devices or assistance.

“I’m feeling pretty good now,” he said recently, just short of a year after his COVID nightmare began. He and Joanne walk two miles on most days, and he’s exercising on his own again, continuing to build up his endurance and muscle strength.

He and Joanne have penciled in plans to travel when it’s safe to visit their son and his family in Texas and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in August.

Tom was able to pay the ARC a return visit a few months later to the delight of the staff, and he received the first dose of the COVID vaccine on Jan. 24 at the St. Luke’s Anderson Campus, a first critical step in virus immunity.

“Tom was one of the sickest COVID patients we saw in the ARC, but he’s made so much progress,” adds Dr. Sathe. “He’s like a new man.”

Press photo courtesy sluhn Tom Brugger, accompanied by his wife Joanne, leaves the St. Luke's inpatient rehabilitation unit last June after five weeks of intensive therapy there that put the Bethlehem Township man back on his feet. This followed a month's stay in the ICU, where the staff saved him from the clutches of COVID-19. Tom was able to visit both units a few months after leaving St. Luke's to thank them for their compassionate and lifesaving care. He then had three months of Home Health care to further help his recovery from the virus.