Helderle

Frank Helderle in his bed April 9 at Mercy Hospital Jefferson in Crystal City, where he was treated for COVID-19 coronavirus. He was released April 10.

Frank Helderle overcame the odds, said doctors who treated him for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Helderle, 68, of House Springs returned home April 10, after spending 12 days at Mercy Hospital Jefferson in Crystal City, where he was treated for the coronavirus.

Dr. Karthik Iyer, Mercy Jefferson’s chief medical officer, said Helderle was the first COVID-19 patient at that hospital who had been on a ventilator and then recovered enough to be discharged and sent home.

“He beat all of the odds, and we are all so happy for him,” said Iyer, who helped take care of Helderle in the intensive care unit. “It was not just the physicians. It was a unified effort, all of the nurses and health-care related workers. Everybody from housekeeping and dietary and beyond, all deserve credit. I’m very happy for Mr. Helderle.”

Helderle said he’s lucky to have survived the virus.

“They have people here who were in here before I came in, and they are still here on a vent,” said Helderle, a two-time cancer survivor and diabetic. “I’m very fortunate to come through this thing.”

As of April 10, Mercy Jefferson was caring for seven patients who had tested positive for COVID-19, as well as five other patients who were awaiting test results, hospital spokesman John Winkelman said. He also said as of April 10, Mercy Jefferson had treated and discharged 11 patients who had tested positive for the virus.

As of Sunday evening, the Jefferson County Health Department had reported 124 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with three deaths related to the disease.

“Stories like Mr. Helderle’s are really inspirational,” Iyer said. “It can give the community hope and inspire them to believe we can beat this virus.”

Helderle’s wife, Laurie, 65, said she was shocked her husband survived, given his pre-existing conditions.

“I never thought he was going to come home,” she said. “God is not done with him, yet, I guess.”

Both she and Frank credit Mercy Jefferson’s staff for providing him with exceptional care.

“They (Mercy Jefferson’s staff) were great,” Laurie said. “Frank said they are working so hard, and he wants to be able to give back for all of the care he got there.”

Rushed to Mercy

Because of Frank’s underlying medical conditions, Laurie said she had been taking his temperature two to three times a day, and his temperature never rose. However, he was having some breathing issues, but at first, the two thought it was due to his other health issues.

“We didn’t want him to go to the hospital for fear he would get COVID-19, but he had it,” Laurie said.

On March 30, Frank’s breathing became so shallow and labored that Laurie called 911. He was rushed to Mercy Jefferson, and on April 1, a test confirmed he had the coronavirus.

Frank said he was put on a ventilator shortly after arriving at the hospital, and surprisingly, he was taken off the ventilator and able to breathe on his own five days after that.

“I heard somebody say, ‘Relax, we are just taking the vent out of your throat.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean? Why would there be a vent in my throat?’” Frank said of his first memory in the hospital, which was when he was being taken off the ventilator. “I can’t tell you how freaked out about it I was. All I am trying to do is get whatever is in my throat out, and you have three or four guys holding you down. It was scary.”

Frank said he does not know how he was exposed to the virus. He said it could have been when he was at Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Creve Coeur for cancer treatments or when he took his 89-year-old father, Robert, who lives in the Rosemont Senior Living Centre in Arnold, to the Veterans Administration Hospital.

“Those are the only two places my wife didn’t go with me,” said Frank, whose family members all self-quarantined for 14 days after he tested positive. As of April 9, none of them had shown symptoms of being infected.

Laurie was not allowed to visit Frank while he was in the hospital. The same went for the couple’s children – daughter, Amanda, 42, of St. Louis, and son, Steven, 48, of Barnhart. They also have three grandchildren and one great-grandson.

In addition to Iyer; health care providers who cared for Frank during his stay in the hospital included Dr. Ben Albano Jr., Mercy Jefferson’s medical director; Dr. Chandra Dommaraju, Mercy Jefferson’s infectious disease specialist; and Dr. Tracy Riordan, Frank’s primary care physician at Mercy Clinic Imperial.

“Mr. Helderle proved that you never know what can happen,” Albano said. “It seemed like the deck was stacked against him, and he was able to overcome all of that. That inspires me and the rest of the hospital group, and I hope it inspires others. There are people who are overcoming this, getting back and to their families.”

Riordan also said Frank’s recovery is inspirational.

“With Frank and all of his chronic conditions, he probably should have been one of the statistics that didn’t make it through this virus,” Riordan said. “He had a great group of health care providers by his bedside when he was at his sickest moment. They provided him the right care he needed to get him through this. Hopefully, the community knows the medical community is there to get us through this. We are going to get on the other side of this. We will be better as a health system for it at the end of the day.”

Isolated

Frank said one of the hardest parts of his recovery was the feeling of isolation. He was alone in a hospital room, and his only visitors were doctors and nurses.

“During those first few days (after being taken off the ventilator), I didn’t know if I could handle it,” Frank said. “It is extremely hard. It can get discouraging, but it was a temporary thing.”

When nurses and doctors entered his room, they were covered from head to toe for their protection, Frank said, but that didn’t stop him from forming relationships with them.

“Nearly every person here takes a personal interest with you, and they take the time to talk with you,” Frank said. “I built relationships with a few of the nurses. But because they come into my room with masks on and shields over their faces, I couldn’t tell you which one is which.”

Frank said some of his nurses loaned him books to read.

He praised Mercy Jefferson’s staff for how he was treated during his recovery, and he said he will search for a way to repay the hospital employees.

“I’m going to take care of the nurses, doctor, ambulance people and those who took care of me,” Frank said. “I want to pay it forward a little bit.”

Plenty of help

Frank and Laurie said they received help from a number of people after Frank was hospitalized.

They both work for RE/MAX Best Choice, and their co-workers pitched in with monetary donations to help them. A friend replaced a dead battery in the couple’s van and refused to take any money, and other friends and neighbors have helped by grocery shopping for Laurie or bringing food to their home.

“It makes you want to cry,” Frank said of the support he and his wife have received.

Homecoming

Frank said he talked to his wife and children by phone, and they used Facetime to see each other a few times while he was in the hospital. However, he was looking forward to reuniting with his wife in person, and he hopes he can see the rest of his family in person again soon.

The day before Frank was released from the hospital, Laurie said she knew what she was going to do when she saw her husband again.

“Give him a kiss and a hug,” she said. “Then I will fix him a hot meal. I’ll probably get him pizza or barbecue. It has really been hard not being able to see him.”