It had been four days since Matt Umberger, 52, of Albany was admitted to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center with severe complications from COVID-19.
He received oxygen and antibiotics, and doctors moved him to the prone position so he could breathe easier. But he was getting worse. Much worse.
The nurse at his bedside, Brandy Tyler, RN, caught the look in his eyes.
“I can tell that you are tired,” she said with kindness.
It was time. He didn’t think he could live another day. His only option was to trust his doctors and be placed on a ventilator to breathe for him.
At that time, the odds were against him coming off the ventilator alive.
“Tell my wife I love her and my kids, too,” Umberger said to Tyler.
Then he thought, I can’t leave anyone out. “And my sister and parents,” he added.
Then everything faded.
On Oct. 6, 2020, Umberger woke up with what he thought were flu symptoms. He didn’t think it could be COVID because he had been careful to wear a mask. But his symptoms persisted another three days until he got tested. It was confirmed positive on Oct. 12. Umberger still thought he could quarantine and recover at home.
But then he spiked a fever of 104.1. His stepson found him sleeping outside on the front porch, trying to cool down. At 2 a.m. on Oct. 15, Umberger woke his wife.
“I need to you take me to the hospital,” he said.
Dropping him off at the Emergency Department was the last time Tara Umberger saw her husband for 26 days.
Umberger was critically ill and would spend eight days on a ventilator in the ICU.
Before a vaccine was available, the ability to save patients was less than it is today. If a patient had to be put on a ventilator, the mortality rate in U.S. hospitals then was 80%. Although, at Good Samaritan ICU, patient outcomes were often better.
Like other patients hospitalized with COVID, Umberger was given steroids to help his body recover. Additionally, care teams tried to prevent complications by maintaining IV nutrition and avoiding pneumonia infections, skin breakdown and blood clots with bedside care.
He recalls softly spoken words of encouragement about his family.
“They’re pushing for you, Matt. They’re waiting for you to get better,” he heard.
He remembers being asked to try to breathe on his own. But he would panic, and alarms would sound. Then he would fall back asleep.
They woke him a fourth time to try the breathing test.
“We’re going to turn off the machine to see if you can breathe on your own,” he heard. “Just relax.”
He waited for the test to start. “OK Matt, we’ve had the ventilator off and you’re breathing on your own,” he heard.
Pulmonologist James Knight, MD, leaned down. “Congratulations, Matt. You kicked COVID’s butt,” he said.
“Does that mean I get to go home now?” Umberger asked.
“No,” Dr Knight replied. “It means the easy part is over. Now begins the rest of your journey to recovery.”
“I had no idea what he meant,” Umberger recalled.
Over the next eight months, he would learn that his doctor was right. Surviving was just the beginning.
Umberger recalled a motivating conversation with a nurse on his care team. “I am here to help you get better so you can take care of yourself,” Joe Pyles, RN, explained. It was like flipping a switch. From that point, Umberger worked hard at his recovery.
When he came home from the hospital, he needed his wife’s help to walk to the bathroom. In four weeks, he had lost 60 pounds, and his legs were weak. He relied on supplemental oxygen for several weeks.
“I felt like a 95-year-old man,” he said.
Umberger started pulmonary rehabilitation and eventually graduated to working out on his own three days a week. He continues to receive follow-up care from Samaritan Medical Group Pulmonology – Corvallis and takes medication to repair the damage to his lungs caused by COVID. There are some activities that still make him winded and cause his oxygen level to drop.
But Umberger considers himself lucky. After missing nearly four months from work, he was able to return in January 2021. By the spring, he resumed fishing and other recreational activities.
“Now, I feel like my age again,” he said. “But I’m not 100% yet.”
Since Umberger was hospitalized, there have been some developments in treatment. But the medical community still does not understand why some people without underlying health conditions become severely ill from COVID. And doctors are still not able to save everyone, including Umberger’s mom, Nancy Umberger, of Toledo, who died Oct. 14, 2021, of complications due to COVID.
Before he was hospitalized, Umberger didn’t fully comprehend how serious COVID was. “I thought it was overblown,” he said.
Now he knows better, and he is motivated to share his story in hopes that others can stay healthy. As soon as he was eligible, Umberger received the COVID-19 vaccine.
See more images of Matt’s journey to recovery.