For This COVID-19 Patient, Every Day is a Gift

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For Northern Kentucky resident Scott Bonta, May 28 will forever mark a new anniversary in his life: it’s the day he returned home after battling COVID-19 for more than two months in the hospital.  

Surrounded by cheering St. Elizabeth Healthcare nurses, doctors, therapists and aides, Scott slowly stood up from his wheelchair and carefully walked into his family’s embrace. They had waited 68 days to hug him.

Scott spent more than two months battling COVID-19 and its lingering after-effects at St. Elizabeth Ft. Thomas. Half of those days were spent in the Intensive Care Unit on a ventilator in a medically induced coma as the virus ravaged Scott’s body.

“I didn’t just have COVID,” says Scott, a 61-year-old Northern Kentucky resident who is active in his church and community. “I had all of the complications that go with it, including advanced respiratory disease (ARDS), eight strokes, severe pneumonia and multiple blood clots.”

As one of its original COVID-19 patients, Scott unwittingly led the way on St. Elizabeth’s development of treatment protocols. His nurses, doctors and physical therapists rallied around him as he slowly and steadily battled back against the virus – with a few dramatic U-turns along the way.

Scott’s wife Kathy kept a detailed journal capturing all of the ups and downs of his journey – and there were many. Due to COVID-19 restrictions at St. Elizabeth, Scott’s family could not visit him, creating a unique situation for his healthcare team. Scott’s nurses became his surrogate family, calling Kathy, daughter Tracy, and son Stephen with daily updates, FaceTiming the family through hospital iPads and creating a trusted lifeline for the entire family. When they did not have answers, Scott’s family and friends turned to prayer and their faith.

Between the endless prayers, comprehensive medical care at St. Elizabeth and sheer determination, Scott pulled through. He was finally discharged from the ICU to a step-down unit and began the next phase of his long journey — recovery.

COVID-19 Recovery: An Uphill Battle

Scott arrived in the St. Elizabeth skilled nursing unit as a shell of his former self. Down 65 pounds from the start of his illness, he had no stamina or strength – frustrating for anyone, especially a 61-year-old professional who was actively enjoying life just weeks earlier. 

“When Mr. Bonta got to our skilled nursing floor, he could only sit on the side of his bed,” said Jennifer Hitch, Physical Therapist at St. Elizabeth. “Because of his extensive illness, he couldn’t maintain his oxygen saturation – which meant he couldn’t do any functional activities like brushing his teeth or shaving.”

The simple act of sitting up or slowly moving causes panic in a lot of COVID-19 patients. After not being able to breathe for so many weeks, there is a significant mental and physical hurdle to convince the brain that you can breathe.

“We’ve seen it with almost all of our COVID patients – not being able to breath makes you even more anxious,” says Missy Wagner, Occupational Therapist at St. Elizabeth. “The first few days, we focused on breathing and relaxation techniques to maintain his vitals.”

Once Scott’s vitals stabilized even with activity, he was determined to start making progress. His goal was to go home to his family and his job, and he made himself a task list to track his progress. That list helped the control slowly shift back to Scott throughout his recovery.

“When you’re in control of your life and then you lose control of everything with an illness like COVID-19, it’s a long road back,” says Jennifer. “In the beginning, we were in control, but by the end of Scott’s stay in skilled nursing, he had regained control.”

Long-lasting Effects of COVID-19

The physical, emotional and occupational therapy components of COVID-19 recovery are critical to a patient’s overall well-being. 

“Many of our COVID patients have a huge amount of emotional baggage from their illness,” says Stephanie D’Amico, Nurse Manager of St. Elizabeth Skilled Nursing. “We help our patients pick the pieces back up. It’s a lot to handle – after all, they were just going about their everyday lives and then suddenly woke up six weeks later, not remembering anything that had happened to them.”

Today, Scott is slowly and steadily continuing his recovery, although he says progress is slower and more difficult than he had expected.

“There isn’t a lot of data or a baseline for my doctors and therapists to work from,” says Scott. “It really adds to the uncertainty about COVID recoveries – the ‘newness’ of the virus and the various ailments that can come along with it.”

It has been a long journey, but Scott and his family are thankful for the gift of his continued recovery. He and his wife are walking daily with their beloved dog Rusty, and Scott has successfully passed through his initial round of physical and occupational therapy. 

“I’m getting better every day and making progress every week,” says Scott. “And we are celebrating every milestone along the way.”

In reflection, Scott and his family would like to send their deepest thanks to Dr. Dora Savani and her team for “saving my life;” the nursing and therapy teams at St. Elizabeth Ft. Thomas for “bringing me back to life;” and to the countless extended family, friends and prayer groups who kept him in their prayers throughout his battle and recovery.