Steve Nicewarner is back at home, sleeping in the comfort of his own bed after 31 days at the Baltimore Washington Medical Center, fighting to beat the relentless coronavirus.
Nicewarner, the 1,000th COVID-19-positive patient discharged from the University of Maryland Medical System, was welcomed back into his Elkridge home on June 23 by his two daughters, who also fought and beat the virus, and his wife, Cindy Nicewarner.
“Steve had some close calls; he was extremely sick,” said Cindy, 57. “They were working hard to keep him alive and keep him going.”
For Nicewarner, a 57-year-old Defense Department budget analyst, it all started May 17.
Fatigue and fever set in, just three days after his youngest daughter, Johnna, 25, tested positive for the coronavirus. Johnna, who works as an emergency room nurse at Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, said she was doing everything to keep her family safe, including sleeping in a tent in the backyard.
By May 18, however, Nicewarner received positive test results, and two days later his older daughter, Jenny, 31, tested positive as well.
“I was really shocked that he got it. I was being very careful,” Johnna said. “I don’t know where or when it happened, but unfortunately it did.”
After a week of stagnant health, fever and fatigue persisting but vital signs staying strong, Nicewarner’s blood-oxygen level began to dip. Johnna, who was working in the emergency room when the pandemic began, knew what that meant: Her father needed to get to the hospital.
“My fear [of going to the hospital] was based on what I was hearing in May, that I was going to go to the hospital and not come back out,” he said.
Nicewarner was admitted May 24. He has little memory of what happened during the 31 days that followed. After walking into the emergency room, he was quickly moved to the COVID-19 floor of the medical center before being moved once again, this time into intensive care.
“Based on his lab work he was pretty sick, but he didn’t look that way,” Johnna said. “As a medical professional, you’re used to these types of things, but hearing this about my family member, knowing you can’t be there, is really difficult.”
Nicewarner spent 10 days on a ventilator. Each day, the doctors would call his family with daily reports, and Johnna would translate the medical details to Cindy.
“The crazy thing about COVID is that the patients we get, they don’t look crappy, they don’t look distressed,” Johnna said. “Then you get their blood work and they end up being intubated very soon after that.”
Eventually Jenny, a third grade teacher in Anne Arundel County, and Johnna both recovered. Johnna even went back to work at the Baltimore Washington Medical Center, the same hospital her father was in, fighting for his life.
“I went to work in the ER on the first floor, knowing my dad was two floors above me and I couldn’t see him,” Johnna said.
Hospital policy prohibited Johnna from visiting COVID-19 floors, though colleagues provided updates when they could.
Cindy kept busy, too. The University of Maryland called to ask her if she would participate in a 28-day clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine. She was the only one in her household not to test positive for coronavirus.
“I just wanted to do something to try to help,” she said. “We hate COVID; I’d do anything to beat it into submission.”
After 10 days, Nicewarner was off the ventilator, and his family was able to see him by video chat with the assistance of a nurse and a tablet the hospital provided.
“He couldn’t speak to us, but he could hold up a finger or blink to communicate at the start,” Cindy said. “It was such a blessing and a relief to us to be able to see him and him to see us.”
Eventually, his condition improved and his body got strong enough for him to be released.
Now that he’s home, Nicewarner is working to regain strength in his leg and arm muscles. Most importantly to him, he’s waiting for his sense of taste to come back, a common side effect of COVID-19.
“All the real food tastes the same,” he said. “My desired reward for getting out of the hospital is a steak and baked potato, but it tastes like cauliflower.”
Though Nicewarner recovered, his family is still extremely guarded about spreading the virus. They’re staying at home, wearing masks and constantly washing their hands.
“People need to become more concerned about it and do all the correct things,” Nicewarner said. “A lot of people are focused on themselves and wanting to do what they want to do and not realizing that the impact of this disease is deadly.”