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"I'm just happy to be alive,” 51-year-old COVID-19 survivor says

For weeks, Rick Huggins fought for his life in an ICU at M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital. The intensity of the illness shocked him. “COVID-19 really, really knocked me down,” he said.
After 50 days apart, Rick Huggins tearfully reunited with his wife Patti outside an M Health Fairview rehabilitation center. Diagnosed with COVID-19 in March, Rick fought for his life in an ICU at Bethesda Hospital.

On a brilliant spring morning, Patti Huggins stood with her daughter Emily outside the front doors of a rehabilitation center, waiting for her husband Rick.

When he finally emerged, escorted out in a wheelchair, there were no words – only tears.

For the Huggins family from Eden Prairie, it was a dreamlike end to a nightmarish, 50-day ordeal that began on March 26, when Rick was hospitalized after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Rick was one of the first people admitted to M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital the day it reopened as the state’s only dedicated COVID-19 hospital.

There, he spent 30 days on a ventilator, wavering in and out of consciousness, while M Health Fairview nurses, doctors and caregivers battled to save his life. For much of that time, his family was unable to visit in person due to COVID-19 safety precautions designed to slow the spread of the virus.

“Tomorrow, I will see my husband for the first time in 50-some days,” Patti said in a video she posted to Facebook the day before Rick was discharged. “God does answer prayers.”

“I thought, ‘It’s just the flu’”

Rick, a healthy 51-year-old with no pre-existing conditions, is an avid cyclist. He has ridden across Ohio four times and Indiana twice – both times covering the roughly 160-mile trek in a single day. Despite being in good health, COVID-19 took a significant toll.

“If I was in poor health, I don’t think I would’ve made it,” he said.

Rick first noticed something wrong during a family trip to Florida in late February. There, he began feeling ill and vomiting. The family chalked it up to food poisoning, but Rick’s illness lingered, dogging him during a subsequent trip to Ohio in early March to visit family. Worried that he may have COVID-19, Rick decided to return to Minnesota. Back at home, he developed additional symptoms, including a cough and a severe fever.

“I just couldn’t get it to break,” Rick said. “Every day, I hit 103 or 104 degrees. One day, I hit 105.”

On March 26, Rick and Patti visited the M Health Fairview Clinic – Eden Prairie for an exam. He tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after and was transported to Bethesda Hospital. After arrival, he learned his lung function was declining and he would need to be sedated and put on a ventilator.

Rick doesn’t remember much from his time in ICU, though the compassion of his care team stood out.

“The amount of care and concern the staff showed me in the ICU was just incredible,” Rick said. “I’d be lying in bed awake, and the nurses would walk by the window and see me. They’d just tap on the glass – give me a wave or a thumbs-up. It was very encouraging.”

The intensity of the illness shocked Rick, who lost 30 pounds during his hospitalization. COVID-19 attacked his lungs, and complications from the illness also damaged Rick’s kidneys. To survive, he needed three rounds of dialysis and nine blood transfusions. The illness also caused an immune system overreaction called a cytokine storm, during which time his body began attacking its own cells. Doctors gave him an immune-suppressant drug to save his life.

“Like a lot of people, I thought ‘It’s just the flu. If you’re not old, and you don’t have an underlying health condition, you’re fine,’” Rick said. “But COVID-19 really, really knocked me down. It’s a serious thing, and people need to realize that.”

At the same time Rick was hospitalized, his father-in-law in Ohio was also diagnosed with COVID-19 and suffered a stroke. He was discharged on May 6 and the family celebrated with a Dairy Queen blizzard. On social media, the family used the hashtag #HugginsStrong to celebrate his and Rick’s resilience.

Ringing the Bell

In late April, Rick was finally healthy enough to be taken off of ventilator support. On May 9, he was discharged from Bethesda Hospital. On his way out of the hospital, nurses and staff played the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” over loudspeakers and cheered while Rick rang the discharge bell marking the end of his hospitalization.

From the hospital, Rick was transferred to the M Health Fairview Acute Care Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis to continue his recovery.

“What’s striking for me about Rick was that he was just so motivated even though he had gone through so much,” said Physiatrist Farha Ikramuddin, MD, MPH, who helped lead Rick’s rehabilitation. “You knew looking at him that he was a guy who was a hard worker.”

That determination was needed: After weeks on ventilator support, Rick’s muscles had atrophied. A multi-disciplinary team of physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists began the re-conditioning process.

There is no rehabilitation playbook for COVID-19 patients, many of whom face ongoing lung function issues, muscle deconditioning, and other cognitive side effects due to the prolonged sedation that occurs with ventilator support.

To address these new challenges, Ikramuddin and her colleagues developed and deployed a new rehabilitation model for COVID-19. “We are seeing things that we have not seen before,” Ikramuddin said. “But our response time was so rapid.”

Rick’s final milestone didn’t arrive until May 14, when results came back negative on two consecutive COVID-19 tests, paving the way for his family’s tearful reunion the next day outside of the rehabilitation center. Rick had used an iPad to video chat with his wife four or five times every day, but his joy at seeing Patti and his daughter Emily in person again was evident in the long, emotional hug he shared with them.

That night, as Rick slept in his bed at the Huggins’ home in Eden Prairie, Patti “kept touching his chest in the middle of the night, just to make sure he was breathing,” she wrote on Facebook.

“It means the world to me that he’s, he’s right here,” she later told WCCO during an interview.

For Rick, the feeling is mutual. “I’m so happy to be alive,” he said.