COVID-19 left in its wake hundreds of devastating stories of illness, long-term lingering effects, and tragic loss of life. But James Campbell’s story is one of triumph. Critically ill with coronavirus in March 2020, when clinicians were still learning how to best treat the emerging disease, James miraculously beat the odds and recovered after three weeks on a ventilator.
The 58-year-old commercial property manager developed classic COVID-19 symptoms while at work in New York City: fever, aches and fatigue. After testing positive for coronavirus, he quarantined at home, trying to stay away from his wife, Kelly. After resting over the weekend, he texted a friend on Monday that his breathing seemed to be improving. But by the next day, Kelly noticed that he seemed confused and wasn’t making sense when he talked.
She called a friend, who told Kelly to get James’ medical kit – he is a volunteer EMT and former Chief of the West Babylon Fire Department – and check his blood oxygen level and heart rate. Both numbers indicated that James was in grave danger: his pulse rate was 106 and his oxygen level was just 52 percent. His heart was working hard to compensate for the lack of oxygen flowing to his organs.
Kelly called an ambulance which brought James to Good Samaritan’s emergency department, where many of the staff knew him. The last thing James remembers was an ER doctor saying, “Chief, I have to intubate you. I have to put you to sleep.”
James awoke 15 days later in the intensive care unit, confused and agitated. He was again sedated and spent another five days in intensive care. Doctors were concerned that he might never be able to be weaned off the ventilator, but after 20 days, he proved them wrong. As COVID-19 ravaged his body, he developed kidney problems, pneumonia and a blood infection, but he responded to treatment and was able to overcome every challenge. Ultimately, he was sent to Our Lady of Consolation Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for a week of rehabilitation before returning home.
James remembers little of his time in intensive care, but once he was lucid, he overheard hospital staff refer to him as the “miracle man.” He later learned that he truly was special – every patient who was as sick as James had been had lost their battle with COVID-19, but he had been the first at Good Sam to recover after being so critically ill with the virus.
Being part of the West Babylon Fire Department comes with its perks: when he was finally discharged from Our Lady of Consolation, a fire department ambulance picked him up and a small parade of fire department vehicles escorted him home, complete with media coverage from local television stations.
At home, James worked hard to continue his recovery. An avid walker, he laced up his sneakers and within a month, was back to walking five miles a day. By June, he was ready to return to active duty with the West Babylon Fire Department, but his personal physician cautioned against it. In July, just four months after nearly succumbing to coronavirus, he passed a pulmonary function test with flying colors and was given clearance to return to the volunteer work he loves.
His motivation to help others didn’t end with returning to the fire department; after he recovered, he began to donate plasma on a weekly basis to help others beat the virus.
James’ adult son and daughter both live in Colorado and were unable to travel to New York while James was sick. He was only able to speak with them on the telephone after he left intensive care, three weeks after being hospitalized. Now that travel restrictions have been lifted, his family has been able to visit and he recently had the opportunity to spend time with his 21-month-old grandson, Jack.
James credits his recovery to the care he received from the doctors and nurses at Good Samaritan, as well as to his cardio fitness level, cultivated by walking four miles daily. And he appreciates how close he came to becoming one of the more than 600,000 Americans who lost their lives to COVID-19.
“Anybody in the condition I was in did not survive,” he said. “I was a success story.”