Gene Pouliot is no stranger to a hospital bed, having had six hip surgeries and a seventh surgery for a double hernia.
None prepared him for the last two months.
Pouliot, a 67-year-old Lyons man, is now home from Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove recovering from COVID-19. He'll turn 68 in June, and looks forward to celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary with his wife, Kris Jednachowski, in September. She, and an oxygen machine Pouliot is connected to 24 hours a day, are his constant companions these days.
During a lively 90-minute conversation, Pouliot barely reveals a trace of the dry cough that he came down with a day after returning from a March trip to Cancun – but don't be fooled.
"I don't wish this on anybody," Pouliot said. "When you first come down with it, especially if you have a family, you don't know what's going to happen."
Pouliot's journey into the unknown began the day after he and nine others returned from a weeklong vacation in Cancun. The cough came March 25, and days later he started to run a fever. Aches and pains followed, but Pouliot chalked those up to his arthritis. On April 1, diarrhea kicked in. The next day Jednachowski called Pouliot's primary care doctor out of Good Samaritan, who said Pouliot should go to the emergency room right away.
ER took his temperature and swabbed his nose, and 15 minutes later the test came back positive for COVID-19. Pouliot, a former high school football player and college wrestler who made a career in landscaping and lawn maintenance, regrets waiting as long as he did to get checked out.
"If I had any inkling it was COVID, I would have gone in before," Pouliot said. "Two hip replacements, four hip revisions, I don't know what I was thinking to wait."
Pouliot was put on a ventilator shortly after his admission, and remained on it for close to three days. He remembers coming out of the anesthesia early to the sight of tubes.
"I couldn't do anything, couldn't talk. I have a great whistle and couldn't do that. I finally looked out the windows and saw the back of two heads, turns out it was a nurses' desk and thought what could I do to get their attention," Pouliot said. "I grabbed a pillow with my right hand and started waving it like a flag. Another nurse walked up to the window, and they put me out again."
His next memory, a day or two later, was of hallucinations that he was in another room, seeing two-by-two glass cases with tentacles that looked like there was squid in them, visions that to this day he can't explain.
"I was dreaming, thinking of things nothing to do with me," Pouliot said. "I was thinking, what is going on. At one point I thought I was dead, but then I thought how could that be."
The isolation of three weeks alone in the hospital, up to a week in intensive care, was a harsh change from Pouliot's previous hospital stays for surgery, when friends frequented his room. Pouliot feels fortunate that he had one familiar face around. His sister-in-law Jo Anne Pouliot is a cardiac nurse at Good Samaritan.
She visited Pouliot every day, and got him a new charger for his cellphone so he could talk to his wife and his dad on a regular basis. Pouliot also received calls from three coaches from his football team at Morton West, where Pouliot was part of an undefeated championship team in 1969.
"That helped tremendously. I was isolated from friendly faces except Jo Anne, but I had that verbal," Pouliot said. "I couldn't talk a lot on the phone because I was coughing a lot more. Even 10 days ago if I talked too long I would start coughing. Laughing was even worse."
A month after returning home, Pouliot said he is doing "really good." His lung functions are slowly improving every day. He estimates that he lost close to 27 pounds while he was in the hospital, but his strength and balance are near where they were before he got sick. His physical therapist gave him breathing exercises to expand his chest, which help quite a bit, he said.
A week ago he finally shed the wheelchair that he came home in. When he walks around the house, he'll have Jednachowski set out a cane in case he gets short of breath. Pouliot takes morning walks outside with a walker.
"The problem with some people being at home is they don't do the work at home. If you're not doing the stuff after the therapist leaves, you're not going to get stronger," Pouliot said. "That's something that's embedded in my mind. The people that come down with this and survive, they have to do the work at home if they want to get better."
Pouliot feels fortunate, and surprised, that his wife and none of the others on his Cancun trip ever showed symptoms of COVID-19.
He hopes people take the virus seriously, young and old alike.
"This isn't going to go away anywhere fast," Pouliot said. "It will happen again in September unless we have a cure for it. Some people like my wife, they should have got it, some people don't show symptoms. These young kids, high school, college, they have to think about this stuff. I'm not going to go out without a mask on. I have antibodies in my body, but they don't know if it works. It's a really precautionary time for me, and will be even after I get 100% off the oxygen."