FAIRWAY, KS (KCTV) -- KCTV5 is learning more about the long-term effects​ patients are experiencing after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Doctors say it’s important to see the damage this virus is doing and how they’re helping patients recover. 

Doug Hemke, 66, is a local COVID long-hauler. He credits the team of rehab team and doctors at Saint Luke’s on the Plaza and Saint Luke’s Rehab Institute for keeping his faith in recovery strong, even when his body was not.

Hemke is a Catholic Deacon. He had his faith tested in October 2020 when he tested positive for COVID.

“I let my guard down for an instant, literally for a minute, and that was all it took,” Hemke told KCTV5’s Joe Chiodo. “For me, it was like a tree falling on me. It was so fast and hard.”

Dr. Brad Steinle is the Medical Director of Rehab Services for Saint Luke’s Hospital. He told KCTV5, “We didn’t know, certainly when he was on the ventilator, if this would be a survivable illness.”

Dr. Steinle said Hemke’s case was one of the most severe he has seen. Hemke was put on a ventilator for more than three weeks.

“That was the beginning of my 95-day odyssey to death and back. When I came to, first of all I thought was, 'Wow, I can’t believe it I’m alive.' My wife was there and I reached out and touched her beautiful face,” Hemke explained.

But, for a man who was an avid runner and golfer before getting COVID, he woke up in body he barely recognized. 

“COVID took a lot of my lungs; about 75%. I was on 50 liters of oxygen. That’s the most you can be put on. Whatever you read on the internet, this is not the flu. This is exponentially greater and more mortal than anything we’ve been exposed to, and we need to do whatever we can to stay out of its way," Hemke said as he reflected on his recovery.

Dr. Steinle added, “He was essentially paralyzed with his arms and legs.”

“They just turned to Jello,” Hemke said.

Hemke calls the Saint Luke’s Rehab Institute a godsend that came at just the right time. The Rehab Institute opened just six months before the COVID pandemic hit.

The institute is the only rehab facility in the region with state of the art robotic equipment. The robots and the therapists are helping Hemke find movement again. On his first day of therapy, Hemke could only walk 12 feet before he had to go back to his bed. He can now walk 1,200 feet.

Hemke is still hooked up to oxygen, but he was able to go back home with a sendoff well deserved. Therapists, nurses, and doctors lined the halls and applauded Hemke’s miraculous recovery as he left.

Lung damage and mobility aren't the only long-term effects Dr. Steinle is seeing in patients. “It’s these lingering effects. Patients with ‘COVID brain.’ They're functional and doing things, but they feel fuzzy,” he explained.

Despite the tough journey ahead, Hemke’s not slowing down. “I still have a tee time for the 4th of July and I plan on keeping it,” he told KCTV5.

And, he's not taking a single day for granted.

“Don’t give up. This life is all we have -- a gift from God -- and to squander it is wrong. I’m on day 102 of my bonus life,” he explained with a smile.

Dr. Steinle told KCTV5 his rehab institute has helped about two dozen patients just like Hemke who struggle with mobility and breathing issues from COVID.

Dr. Steinle's biggest plea is for people to get vaccinated so they continue to see cases and deaths go down.  

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