Getting a COVID-19 vaccination was something that Haydn Harris had planned to do in 2021. Unfortunately, the disease struck before he got the chance.
One day at work, Harris noticed he was a little short of breath. When a fever came on, he left immediately to get tested. The test came back positive for COVID-19.
“I stayed at home a few days. Everything seemed OK,” Harris said. “I’d lost my taste, but for the most part, it was alright. And then I woke up in the middle of the night and as I tried to go to the bathroom, I went unconscious.”
Harris’ father, Todd Harris, found him on the bathroom floor and rushed him to the hospital. That was just the beginning of a nearly two-month battle with COVID-19. Thanks to the care he received at Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center, Harris has returned to daily activities like golf and completing the home renovation he started before he fell ill.
A 52-Day Stay in the ICU
A few days after being admitted to Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center, Harris was put on a ventilator. He continued to struggle to breathe.
“We had to explain to Haydn that survival probabilities were not in his favor, and he understood that. But without intubation, he would not survive,” said Dr. Royce Miller, a critical care and ECMO specialist at Atrium Health Navicent.
After not responding well to the ventilator, Miller and his team decided the best course of action was to sedate Harris and put him on an ECMO machine. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, ECMO for short, is a machine that pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.
Harris spent 42 days on ECMO during his 52-day stay in the ICU. During that time, his body slowly healed.
“Patients who are on ECMO, they’re either going to go for a lung transplant, or we’re going to get them off of the ECMO,” said Dr. Miller. “Toward the end of his hospital stay with us, Haydn’s requirements on the ECMO machine started to come down because his lungs were doing that work for us. At that point, we knew he was turning a corner, and he did rather well.”
Not long after he came out of sedation, the work began to get Harris up on his feet, even while he was still attached to the ECMO machine.
Step by step, Harris began to recover.
“The occupational therapists and physical therapists were awesome. As soon as I was off sedation, I was up and standing. As soon as I was up and standing, it was time to start walking,” Harris said.
Walking down the hall while still on ECMO was not only a triumph for Harris, but the doctors, nurses, therapists and caregivers at Atrium Health Navicent who’d worked tirelessly to save Harris’ life.
Harris was discharged from the hospital on New Year’s Eve 2021. That’s when the work of recovering at home began. When he initially contracted COVID-19, Harris was in the middle of a home renovation. Most of his belongings were already at his parents’ house, and so it was an easy decision to temporarily move in with mom and dad.
“Initially, it was rough. I couldn’t make it from the bedroom to the kitchen without oxygen, but little by little, I kept getting better,” Harris said. “The doctors eventually told me that I needed 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day to really improve my health. They told me that and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I did it as many days a week as I could. The oxygen came off more and more, and now I’m to the point where I don’t wear it at all unless I’m sleeping. I’m walking three miles a day without oxygen.”
As his health progressed, Harris decided it was time to get back into his favorite sport.
“Finally, when I was feeling strong enough, I took a golf club out in the backyard and swung it to see how it felt. I went to my dad and said, ‘Hey, let’s go to the driving range.’ It was an emotional moment, but we did it,” Harris said. “Even now, my golf game isn’t great, but it’s great fun.”
‘A Team Effort’
Harris said fatigue and struggling with sleep continue to be his biggest obstacles. He admitted that along with those come mental struggles.
“That’s a huge issue and it’s hard to overcome,” he said. “For anyone going through sickness like this, don’t be afraid to get help from someone. Don’t be afraid to find someone to talk to or someone in a similar situation to talk with. Having those people to talk to helped me tremendously.”
In addition to caring friends and doctors, Harris said his journey through sickness and into recovery wouldn’t have been successful without his parents and caregivers.
“For my parents, I can’t say enough. And then the team here at Atrium Health Navicent, they are the reason I’m here today. My hard work wouldn’t have mattered if it weren’t for their hard work,” he said.
Miller was quick to credit the whole caregiving team for Harris’ recovery.
“The whole medical team contributed immensely to this,” he said. “Several of my attending physicians told me, ‘You’re going to have very few cases in medicine that you’re going to really remember. Typically, the cases are very good.’ This is absolutely one of those cases.”
As a testament to how much Harris’ life means to Miller, the two are still in touch, more than a year later. In fact, Harris stays connected to many of the doctors, nurses, physical therapy and occupational therapy teams who aided in his recovery.
“Dr. Miller and I have had lunch a few times,” Harris said. “I stay in touch with as many of them as I can, because I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. They say I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my efforts. We’ve come to agree it’s been a team effort all around.”