GREENVILLE, S.C. - A South Carolina man who spent 63 days in the hospital after contracting COVID-19 credits his wife’s voice for pulling him out of a potentially fatal coma.
Don Gillmer, 43, is a musician at heart and had been playing drums since he was 10 years old. He and his bandmates are close friends, but not as close as he is with his wife, Lacy — not by a long shot.
Don believes his wife is secretly wearing an "S" on her chest — he calls her a real-life "Superwoman."
When Don was diagnosed with COVID-19 in July, he never would have imagined the long and winding road he would have to travel to recovery, and he said he couldn’t have done it without his wife by his side.
Don started feeling sick in June, during a time when not much information about the illness was known. He felt a slight fever and body aches and canceled shows his band had planned to play as a precaution.
"I just noticed I wasn’t feeling well, slight fever," Don said. "Made arrangements for things like that, time off work and fought things at home for a few days."
But when his symptoms weren’t getting better, Don decided to go to the hospital and get checked out to see what exactly was going on.
Then on July 5, Don got the news that he was COVID-19 positive.
Don and Lacy Gillmer.
"At that point I had already suspected it but that call and that confirmation was just like a hundred pounds on my chest," Don continued. "Like, oh no, what am I going to do?"
From there, both Don and Lacy heeded health experts’ advice and took the necessary measures to isolate away from each other and their three cats in hopes that Lacy would avoid getting the virus and Don could slowly get better.
Unfortunately for Don, the virus was not going to let him go without a fight.
"Walking up to go to bed one night was the first time I had a large coughing fit," Don said. "I couldn’t catch my breath no matter what I did and I was getting faint. I sat on the edge of the bed and I knew at that point that I was going to have to get some other help. I didn’t really sleep that night. Woke up the next morning super early and packed a bag, woke up Lacy who was sleeping on the couch, actually, and told her it was time to go."
Don and Lacy headed to the emergency room where he would be admitted to the hospital for the first time in his 43 years of life.
"Never been in a hospital," Don said. "Next thing I know, they called me back and that was the last time I would see Lacy for 40 days."
Don and Lacy Gillmer. (Credit: Don Gillmer)
As soon as Don was admitted, medical staff went to work, checking his oxygen levels, which were in the very low 80s, as well as his blood pressure, which was unstable.
Don even received two infusions of convalescent plasma and a round of Remdesivir, which at the time was still in its trial stages. Despite doctors’ efforts, Don was not getting better.
"Signed the papers to do whatever it took, even if I had to do experimental medicine," Don said. "Nothing helped."
Then, Don got the news he was hoping to avoid during his first-ever hospital stay: He would have to go on a ventilator.
"Just scared me more than anything because honestly, all I’d ever known about a ventilator was that people pass away on them," Don said. "So, I called Lacy, I called family for advice. Collectively decided this was what we needed to do, what doctors advised. So, as soon as I signed that paper it was within a few minutes they were taking me back and that’s all I remember until I woke up about 24 days later."
After being put on a ventilator and induced into a medical coma, Don said he had taken a turn for the worse. Doctors called Lacy, who was anxiously waiting at home, to come and potentially say goodbye to her husband.
"They contacted Lacy and said, ‘This is possibly the night he’s not going to pull through. His temperature is 104, his blood pressure is unstable, his heart rate was pegging in over 200,’ so they let Lacy and my father put on full PPE and come in and, what she describes it as, even though she was being positive, she thought she was coming to tell me goodbye."
Lacy holding Don’s hand. (Lacy Gillmer)
Once Lacy was able to get to Don’s bedside, she took his hand in hers and encouraged him. Despite the reason she was asked to come in, Lacy remained hopeful and spoke only positive and happy words into her comatose husband’s ear.
"Anybody that knows Lacy knows that she has the smallest, tiniest, sweetest voice and I swear I heard her talking to me," Don recalled.
And by the time Lacy and Don’s father left the hospital, after being on the brink of death, Don said his vitals had become stable.
"To me, that’s the power of human touch and that’s the power of somebody being around you that loves you," Don added.
And after the 24th day since being put into a medically induced coma, Don was finally able to slowly wake up. Don would spend a total of 63 days in the hospital dealing with physical therapy and getting his body back to normal, working order.
While Don was in his coma, Lacy had the tough task of deciding whether or not to allow doctors to perform a tracheotomy on him in order to help him breathe. So when Don woke up, he could not speak, which was doubly frustrating for him because he wanted nothing more than to speak to the nursing staff, as well as his wife.
Don in the hospital. (Don Gillmer)
"So, you can’t see, you can’t talk to communicate, you can’t hear and you can’t move," Don said. "You know, you wonder, what is really happening? Is this something else? Did I pass? There’s limitless things that goes through your mind."
Don slowly regained his strength and was finally able to breathe on his own, so doctors decided it was time to move him to another room within the same facility that would allow him to meet with physical therapists and start on his road to recovery.
He was even able to check social media for the first time in a long time and was overwhelmed by the support he was receiving from friends and family.
"So I was able to do some video calls with people and calling them, they could hear my voice, or finally opening up social media and just see the crazy amount of love that I got," Don said, holding back tears. "From just people that loved me, it was overwhelming, it really was."
What surprised Don the most was the physical pain he was in and how weak he had become. He lost a total of 45 pounds and even had some nerve damage on the left side of his body, which impacted his ability to play the drums. And despite his occasional visits with his physical therapists, Don was alone for the most part due to COVID-19 protocols, and the weeks spent away from his wife were starting to take a toll.
"I’m still actually dealing with some nerve damage, in my rotator cuff area and I’m a drummer," Don said. "So this has been a problem. And I’m an engineer, so typing, all these things that I love, video games. So, suddenly, so much has been taken away from me and I’ve never been a ‘Woe is me’ person, but when you’re there alone at night you start kind of getting down on yourself sometimes. But luckily Lacy was always there for me to call and wake up, or if she was even asleep. Most of the time she wasn’t because she was just worried about me."
And even though Don could call Lacy whenever he needed her, the loneliness of being in a hospital room was an aspect he never thought would take such a toll on his mental and physical health, even saying it was akin to being a scared child once again searching for their mom or dad.
"One of the biggest things about my stay is the isolation," Don said. "I’ve always been a fairly positive person, but man, not seeing your loved ones and there’s only so much digitally that you can do."
"There’s just nothing like being in the room with somebody that really cares about you. And people don’t realize how loud a ventilator is. It’s ridiculously loud and on top of all the other beeping and all the other machines and the changing your food that’s being tubed into you, it’s ridiculous," Don said.
After some additional progress with his physical therapies, doctors told Don that he could finally have visitors in his room, and of course, Lacy was already on her way to see him.
"I remember just staring out my hospital door, just waiting for her to run in there and I could hear her little legs carrying her as fast as possible down the hallway and she poked her head in and there’s nothing to explain that feeling after that many days," Don said with a smile. "It was amazing to hear her and see her in the flesh, finally. And get to touch her and begin our journey together, getting to where we are today."
But Don’s journey was far from over. He would continue to get physical therapy and learn to live his life normally again after being in a coma for such an extended period of time. His physical therapist, Bob, with whom Don developed a great friendship, had him practicing walking up stairs, getting in and out of a car and even had Don practice going into a makeshift grocery store they had at the hospital.
Don was getting better faster than expected. So much so that doctors were able to give him a date for his return home: Sept. 11.
"I think I was lucky because I had healthy lungs. I never smoked, done those types of things whereas, other people aren’t so lucky. So, kind of as quickly as I went downhill, I felt like my body was trying to come uphill the same speed," Don said. "And they came in and wrote Sept. 11 on my board. Never a day that sparks happiness, but there will always be two sides of that date for me from here on out and they said that would be the day I get to go home."
Don was finally discharged from the hospital and was able to go home to his wife, but his recovery was not going to stop there. Lacy had gone out and gotten everything Don might need to help make his transition from the hospital to home easier.
"Our home has three stories and it’s like 14 steps to each level," Don said. "So Lacy and I made a plan. She went and bought a twin bed and my office is downstairs and she set up my new home space for a little while... She even bought herself a little twin air mattress and slept next to me on the floor. A horrible air mattress but she did it because she said, all these nights she wanted to be next to me, so we made it the best we could."
And Don’s physical therapist, Bob, left him with one last parting gift: an arm brace that allowed him to hold a drumstick.
"He actually came to my house and brought that a couple of times. They made adjustments, came back. That’s why I’m saying, this is a special person who’s doing things outside of an already stressful job and still cares enough to come and see you at your home," Don said.
Don being discharged by Bob. (Credit: Lacy Gillmer)
While Don was thankful to all of the chiropractors, the doctors, nurses and especially his physical therapists, Lacy is the one he credits with helping save his life.
"You have to build a support system of family and friends because you can’t do this on your own," Don stressed. "I don’t know where I’d be without them."
Don had nothing but good things to say of his supportive wife who took care of the bills, their three cats and even stayed on top of all of the medical staff who were watching over her husband.
"She ran the household, she answered all these questions, she wrangled all the doctors," Don said, beaming. "I tell her often I don’t know how she pulls it off, still does. And she says, ‘You would figure it out too if you had to.’ I don’t know, I think she’s got an ‘S’ on her chest."
Don and Lacy Gillmer in masks. (Credit: Don Gillmer)
Recently, Don got a chance to perform with his band for the first time since he was discharged. He said it was a bittersweet moment for him.
He missed performing and playing with his bandmates, but he was troubled to see the amount of people who were not wearing masks or even attempting to social distance at his first performance since his recovery.
"It’s kind of a balance for me right now because although I miss it so much, part of me is torn between the, am I encouraging, perhaps, irresponsible behavior from people, because when I watch people just walking around in the venues that I’m at with no mask on, just in each other’s face, laughing and having a good time, enjoying the music, which is my goal, but at the same time, if they had any idea of what this can do to you. What a million-dollar hospital bill looks like," Don said.
Both Don and Lacy hopes that their story will help remind people to take the pandemic as seriously as they had in March at the onset.
"As serious as you took this in March, you need to be doing that now," Don said. "Or more."
Don has also been lending his services to the hospital by counseling recovering COVID-19 patients and giving them a personal perspective on the trials of recovering from this deadly virus.
"As much as I think it helps them to talk to me, they don’t realize how much I’m helping myself by talking to them too. I’m trying to do more of that. As much positivity and love that was given to me while I was in there for 63 days, I’m trying to, the old pay it forward expression, and to give that where it’s needed right now," Don said.