CAMILLA — Harold Jenkins took a walk around the block at his home here Friday. And while that might seem an inconsequential milestone, in Jenkins’ case it was nothing short of a miracle.
On April 2, Jenkins was released from Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, a survivor of the dreaded coronavirus that has hit southwest Georgia with a vengeance. That he had done so despite possessing several of the markers that health care officials say put him in the category among the most likely to have serious complications from the virus — older than 65, pulmonary disease and other major underlying health issues — made that walk all the sweeter.
“I’ve got a little bit of energy; it’s coming back a little at a time,” Jenkins said Friday afternoon as he and his wife, Silvana, spoke to a reporter a day after a week of prescribed social distancing within their home. “I’m only now learning about some of what happened; a lot of it was a mystery to me because I was so disoriented when the virus first hit me.”
The Jenkinses’ story is one of hope as the region remains one of the nation’s hot spots for the coronavirus. But they haven’t started celebrating yet.
“We’re taking it a day at a time,” Silvana Jenkins, a fourth-grade math teacher at Lincoln Magnet School in Albany, said after filling in the details of her husband’s illness and recovery. “A lot of people would get to celebrate this experience, but we’ve had to self-isolate for the last week. The doctor said to do that for a week when they released Harold, but I’m giving it a couple of extra days.
“The thing is, I’ve had no one to comfort me during this, no shoulder to lean on. I had to get daily updates by phone from the hospital and Facetime with my siblings and daughter.”
Harold Jenkins started showing symptoms of what would turn out to be the COVID-19 disease in early March. But his wife became particularly concerned when he started showing signs of disorientation and frequently “hiccuping.”
“Harold had had a urological procedure on March 3, and when I noticed his equilibrium was off on March 19, I thought it might be associated with the new medication he was taking,” she said. “Sure enough, one of the possible side effects of the medication is disorientation, so he stopped taking it. Still, two days later, on the 21st, the problem got worse. And then late that night and early Sunday morning, he started having what we thought were the hiccups.
“He did that all day Sunday — what turned out to be shortness of breath — and so Monday I called his primary physician. Harold has a pacemaker, and they were able to check it over the phone. They said everything was fine with his heart.”
The Jenkinses were told that if the problem persisted, to bring Harold by Phoebe on Tuesday morning.
“I was most concerned that Harold had a temperature,” Silvana Jenkins said. “So I took him to Tower 1 at Phoebe Tuesday morning, and they took his temperature, which was one of their new protocols. The attendant said he couldn’t go in the hospital because he had a fever, and when I told him we had been told to come by, he went in to check. They told us to go around to the emergency center.
“Harold got out while I went to park the car, and when I came back they had already taken him inside. They told me I couldn’t go in, that I should go home and wait for a call.”
Harold Jenkins found all this out later.
“He thought he’d passed out and had been taken to the hospital by ambulance,” his wife said. “He didn’t remember much at all about that day.”
Silvana went home to Camilla and waited for daily calls from Phoebe personnel. Harold, meanwhile, waited for a bed to open in the hospital’s ICU. He was finally placed in the unit on Wednesday.
“Dr. (Fabian) Nwadei called me Friday and told me Harold’s fever kept going down and back up,” Silvana Jenkins said. “He was concerned, given Harold’s continued disorientation, that the virus was attacking his brain. He said they wanted to do a CT scan on Harold, but Harold wouldn’t cooperate. He couldn’t stay still.
“I could hear the stress in Dr. Nwadei’s voice as he told me, ‘Pray for your husband and pray for us that we may give him the right treatment.’”
Harold Jenkins’ pulmonologist, Dr. Thomas Ungerino, was called in on the case, and he determined that Jenkins had viral pneumonia. Treatment again was difficult, as Harold pulled out tubes and grappled with nurses who were trying to treat him. Eventually, Jenkins was intubated and placed on a respirator. Because there was no room for him, he lay on his bed in a hallway at the hospital.
“Dr. Nwadei called and said that Harold needed to be in ICU, but there was no bed for him at Phoebe,” Silvana Jenkins said. “They said they were calling, trying to find a hospital to move him to. I worried about that all night, then a nurse called Sunday morning and said his oxygen levels were good. I asked the nurse where she was calling from, and she said ‘Phoebe.’ I said, ‘Praise God.’
“Fortunately, a bed had opened up for him. Unfortunately, it did because someone had died.”
After a night on the ventilator, Silvana got the call the next day that she’d been longing for.
“He’s breathing on his own, asking for something to eat,” she was told.
That, Harold Jenkins said, was a turning point.
“That’s a benchmark for me,” he said. “My wife knows if I’m hungry, I’m all right.”
Harold’s ammonia level had reached a dangerously high 209 while he was at Phoebe. On that Monday, it had dropped to 79. He stayed in ICU for another day, waiting for a room in the hospital’s general population to open. He was moved onto the floor at the hospital on Tuesday. On Thursday, he was released as hospital personnel cheered his departure.
Jenkins said he felt the presence of a higher power as he fought off the virus.
“I told my wife, ‘Baby, I’m sitting in this room, looking out the window, and I feel a strange presence,’” he said. “I know a lot of good people were praying for me.”
Now, Jenkins is back at home, reunited — though still at a distance, at least for a couple of more “extra” days — with the woman who had to suffer through his ordeal alone, relying on information from hospital employees. And the couple is waiting for the day they can go and thank the Phoebe staff in person.
“All the nurses in ICU, and John, who took care of me, I love them all,” Jenkins said. “I want them to know I appreciate them and what they did for me, no matter what I said while I was there.”
“We both can’t wait to go back to Phoebe to say thank you to all the doctors and nurses,” Silvana added.
Harold Jenkins can’t pinpoint exactly how he got the virus. He went to a funeral and a class meeting in Mitchell County and attended church functions. But now that he’s come out the other side, he acknowledges that he’s been granted a gift.
“As long as I’ve got the Lord with me and my wife by my side,” he said, “I’m a blessed man.”