'I’m improving every day': 69-year-old COVID-19 survivor returns home

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - His family calls him the "miracle man." He's 69 years old, he was critically ill with COVID-19, and now he's back home.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Gregory Davis first spoke to 11 News while he was in a rehab facility recovering from his time spent in the hospital on a ventilator. He was finally able to reunite with his family last week.

"I’m feeling wonderful," Davis said. "I’m excited. I’m improving every day.”

Davis says he was first admitted to the hospital on March 20. Ten days later, he was transferred to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs.

Dr. Christopher Merrick, a pulmonologist with Pulmonary Associates who also sees patients at UCHealth Memorial Hospital, was the on-call doctor the night Davis came into the intensive care unit. Merrick says his oxygen status was worsening.

“When he came in and I met him he was speaking in short sentences. That’s a real hallmark sign that someone is short of breath and having pulmonary issues," Merrick said.

Merrick is part of a team of healthcare workers who cared for Davis while he spent days at UCHealth Memorial Central. The Davis family says he was declining daily. He could barely talk and barely breathe. They say his doctors had him on oxygen, but not a ventilator yet.

"Mr. Davis and I had a very frank conversation early on that he probably would need to go on the ventilator," Merrick said. "That was especially true after we got his x-ray that showed significant worsening compared to one week prior when he came into the hospital.”

Merrick says he progressed to the point that he needed to go on a ventilator within about four hours. He says Davis demonstrated behavior doctors and nurses are seeing in many COVID-19 patients: a rapid acceleration of disease and a rapid worsening of oxygen status.

Davis spent days on a ventilator at UCHealth Memorial Central. He says that time is a blur.

“I woke up in the ICU and that’s all that I can remember," said Davis.

The team at UCHealth tells 11 News there is so much unknown with this virus, but doctors and nurses are learning more every day. Davis beat the odds, but those odds are difficult to quantify right now.

“People who go on the ventilator with COVID definitely have a very high rate of mortality," said Dr. Merrick. "There’s a chicken and egg mentality that sicker people often get sicker faster and stay sick.”

Each case is different. Davis got better.

“There’s this phenomenon in the intensive care unit that we can only do as much as the body will allow us. Thankfully he responded well to going on the ventilator and he pulled through," Merrick said. “A lot of that has to do with variables that we don’t even understand in terms of the molecular level, the physiology, but he really pulled through and some others may not have independent of what we were doing, because we did everything we could for him.”

Merrick says doctors and nurses still have much to learn when it comes to treating the virus, but they know more now than they did at the start of the outbreak.

“Some of the take-home lessons that we’ve been learning with COVID-19 is these folks do well if you keep them on the dry side, as we say. We don’t give them very much IV fluids. IV fluids can creep into the lungs and make it harder to ventilate someone."

Merrick says he's also not putting patients on the ventilator as early as physicians initially thought they did.

"We're using other modalities in the ICU such as high flow nasal cannula. That’s a cannula that can get rid of oxygen as high as 60 liters as opposed to the 10 or 15 a typical cannula can," said Merrick. "We’re also using something called BiPAP. It can blow pressure and air and oxygen into the lungs, but it doesn’t require a breathing tube and sedation.”

Merrick also saw Davis at the end of his stay at UCHealth Memorial Central. He says he is absolute proof that people are beating the odds.

"He looked like a new man," said Merrick. "It was great to talk to him and he was able to speak in full sentences. Such a kind guy. His memory really sticks with me.”

Davis says he's continuing his recovery at home. He's working on breathing, balance and endurance.

"I mean, that’s amazing how you have to learn how to breathe," Davis said. “I was one of the blessed ones. I was on the battlefield and I was able to return.”

Davis is a survivor. He says people need to take this virus seriously, especially as we enter Colorado's Safer at Home phase.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to take it lightly," said Davis. “I would encourage everyone to be careful. Be wise. “

Davis wants to thank everyone who helped care for him at UCHealth. He wants to give a personal thanks to Christopher Merrick, Brandon Hamilton, Mario Fadila, Steven Sloan, Suneel Kumar and Ronald Rains.