Monday, June 1, 2020
She Didn’t Recognize the World She Returned To
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Virginia Johnson is delighted to be back out in nature.
 
Saturday, May 9, 2020
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Virginia Johnson was a little befuddled by the “Welcome Home” greeting she received when her son pulled into St. Luke’s Wood River parking lot in mid-April.

“I couldn’t understand what all the commotion was,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why everyone was so spread out. And I couldn’t understand why everyone was wearing face mask. Someone said, ‘Can I have your antibodies?’ and I didn’t know what to say. I just said, ‘Hello.’ ”

Johnson had spent four weeks in the COVID ward on the fourth floor of St. Luke’s Magic Valley. Drifting in and out of consciousness and too weak to manage the TV remote, she had lost touch with a world that had turned upside down while she was hospitalized.

 
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Virginia Johnson runs into her daughter Amy Johnson with Amy’s dogs Gus and Lulu as she winds up her walk.
 

Even towards the end of her stay when she managed to push her wheelchair to the window to look out on the mountains, she had no sense of the new world beyond the hospital doors.

“I saw the delivery trucks coming into the hospital parking lot, the activity outside. And I thought everything was normal,” she said.

Now, seven weeks after she was diagnosed with COVID-19, the diminutive 5-foot-1 Warm Springs resident is taking tiny but sure steps back to the life that she loves. She’s reveling in the spring green aspen leaves dancing ever so slightly in the morning breeze. And she’s gulping in the fresh mountain air of her beloved Sun Valley.

“It was just amazing how I would go to do something with my legs, and they weren’t there for me after lying in a hospital bed for so many weeks,” said the former dean at Colby Sawyer College in New Hampshire. “The main thing I feel now is gratitude.”

 
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The bottom of this card contains a motto for Virginia Johnson to live by-- You’ve only got three choices in life: Give up, give in or give it all you’ve got.
 

Johnson was living a rich life in the days leading up to her COVID-19 diagnosis. She had chalked up 89 days on her Nordic skis, often with her friends Ann Christensen and Gun Taylor. When not skiing, she took part in book clubs and choir practice.

On March 16—two days after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Blaine County—Johnson’s daughter Amy Johnson took her to St. Luke’s Wood River. Virginia was nauseous and had no appetite. And she was shutting down.

“I couldn’t keep water down, anything,” she recounted. “The doctors said, ‘We think you need to spend that night.’ After that, I can’t remember much.”

On March 18, two days after Johnson was admitted to St. Luke’s Wood River, she found herself in an ambulance being driven to Twin Falls as the virus began tearing through the Wood River hospital staff.

 
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Amy Johnson still can’t believe how close she came to losing her mother to COVID-19.
 

“I just laid back and let them take care of me. I was in someone’s complete care,” she said. “I do know my doctor Dr. Fairman kept tabs on me all the way down and even while I was there. And I remember being moved to three different rooms, depending on what I was going through.”

Johnson, who had rarely been ill in her 87 years, developed pneumonia, telltale white patches signifying coronavirus showing up in in her lungs’ x-rays as they filled with fluid.

She ended up in cardiac intensive care after suffering a heart attack caused not by a blockage in her arteries but by the stress her body was under. One night she awoke unable to breathe, a feeling she likened to having a panic attack.

Her daughter Amy said her goodbyes twice as her mother nearly died.

 
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Amy Johnson suited up in full protective gear to sit with her mother each evening during the last week her mother spent in the COVID ward at St. Luke’s Magic Valley.
 

Virginia resisted being put on a ventilator, instead opting for oxygen to be fed her through a tube inserted in her nose. Doctors thread another tube down her nose to her stomach to feed her. They performed what she recalls as “an enormous” number of tests. And they tried out the malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

Doctors later told her the drug did not seem to help her, nor did it harm her.

“I was not real conscious about what was going on,” she said. “I was cognizant of people coming in to take my vitals—each time totally dressed up in what looked like Hazmat suits. I could tell some wanted to get in and out of my room as fast as they could. As soon as they got out the door, they’d rip off everything and stick it in a waste bag.

“Only after I got out of the hospital did I realize they were worried they might get infected. I hadn’t really considered myself such a liability.”

One Sun Valley resident who spent a few weeks at St. Luke’s Magic Valley likened the COVID ward to Alcatraz prison. And Johnson said that was an apt description. No one was allowed in but the doctors and nurses. And she wasn’t allowed out.

Bored and missing nature, she slipped into a depression. Her weight dropped from 105 pounds to 92.

Alarmed, her daughter Amy called the nurses and said, “That’s my Mom. I’m coming in!”

Amy took her mother Medjool dates, which they’d begun eating after seeing tennis pro Novak Djokovic eat them between games. And she took Klondike ice cream bars.

“I figured if I could get one Klondike Bar in her for the calories, it was worth it,” said Amy, who put 891 miles on her car driving every evening to Twin Falls after work.

Nurses outfitted Amy Johnson in protective gear, including a face shield, and Amy hugged her mother for the first time in three weeks. She handed her mother her knitting needles so they could sit and knit. And a doctor volunteered to wheel Virginia outside to see the phlox and redbuds that were beginning to bloom around the hospital.

“I missed the outdoors so much!” Johnson recalled.

After testing negative for the coronavirus twice, Virginia’s son Thad Johnson was allowed to bring his mother back to St. Luke’s Wood River, which was again taking patients.

She had no idea she’d been gone for a month as she transferred from the pickup truck to a wheelchair upon her arrival. She spent a fifth week at the Wood River hospital relearning to walk, as she’d lost all her muscle strength.

“I didn’t realize before what all this physical therapy business was, as I’d never broken a bone or had a hip replacement,” she said. “The doctors told me it takes two to three weeks to get back your strength for every week you spend in the hospital doing nothing.”

Thad, who had left his wife and four children behind in Chicago to be at his mother’s side, served as Virginia’s chauffeur upon her arrival home. He took her for walks and plied her with her favorite dishes like cod and mussels, egg salad and chicken while her daughter and son-in-law lavished Haagen-Dazs ice cream and strawberries upon her.

Masked physical and occupational therapists visit her at home, helping her to relearn to climb stairs and showing her how to strengthen her arms by pulling on rubber straps. When they leave, she takes two mile-and-a-half walks out Lake Creek Road and Murdock Creek.

“I’m thankful for my relative good health,” she said. “I’ve always been an outside person, whether gardening or walking or cross-country skiing.”

Johnson is resigned to the idea that the coronavirus that turned her life upside down for so many weeks will be here for quite some time.

“It’s gotten my family thinking about what’s important in life and how some of the things we used to do every day are not as important,” she said.

Johnson plans to be back on the cross-country ski trails come next November or December. And this time she’s hopeful she can ski a hundred days.

“It’s hard to believe how I was so quickly plucked from being in my home to having my lungs filled with fluid and how it would be six weeks before I was able to return home,” she said. “I feel so lucky. And, particularly now, given the beautiful mountain trails we have to walk on and the fact that spring is here.”

 

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