COVID-19 turned Jimmy Porter’s world upside down in the blink of an eye.
The virus and the side effects of efforts to deal with it left him lying in a hospital bed for 64 days plugged into machines meant to keep him alive – through Thanksgiving, Christmas and even his birthday – and nearly killed him twice while all his wife Sylvia and son Chris could do was watch, wait and pray.
On Jan. 5 the 59-year-old Buhl resident finally returned home, more than 60-pounds lighter and thankful to still be amongst the living.
He doesn’t know where or how he picked up COVID or really how he survived the battle of his life, but he knows one thing for sure – he has a story to tell that he hopes will save others from facing the same nightmare he did.
He said this week that prior to getting sick he felt the pandemic and the response to it was mostly political, adding that he only wore his mask when he had too.
Now he sees things a little differently.
“Your choices are to be made now before you get COVID - wear a mask and social distance,” he said from his home last week. “Prior to COVID I wasn't on any medications and didn't know of any preexisting conditions, so if this can happen to me this could very well happen to you.”
Considering the outpouring of support Jimmy received throughout his ordeal – which included a police-led vehicle parade past his home earlier this month by a large contingent of his friends and family to welcome him home – I have little doubt the lesson he had to learn the hard way will resonate with many people across the Iron Range.
As long as I’ve known Jimmy Porter he has been a “life of the party,” kind of dude. He’s everybody’s buddy and always has that big old Jimmy smile on his face.
It seems to me that he has never shied away from that role - whether it’s while hosting a party in his garage, or running karaoke (through his company, Jimmy’s Jukebox) at a local pub, or by serving as the MC for a singing contest or a giant fundraiser like the annual Friends Helping Friends suicide prevention benefit.
I think he enjoys being “that guy” but not because he longs to be the center of attention. It’s always been quite the opposite, actually. He puts others in the spotlight and celebrates them.
On Nov. 21, 2020, the spotlight swung in his direction for all the wrong reasons when he announced via social media that he had tested positive for COVID and was looking for prayers. The next day, in typical Jimmy Porter fashion (always the joker) he posted a photo of himself in the hospital with an oxygen mask on and wrote: “Just wasn’t sure what to wear today.”
That was the last most of his friend’s heard from him until Dec. 9, when he posted simply, “I’m so happy I’m feeling better.”
Some of us who know Jimmy outside of social media were privy to what was happening in between those dates and why he had gone silent – he was fighting for his life.
The story goes like this: On Nov. 15 he started to feel what he described as, “the funk,” and by the next day he had a fever. The fever continued for the next few days, getting progressively worse (reaching a high of 103 along the way). He would eventually test positive for Covid-19, the results showing up on Friday, Nov. 20.
By the following day he was in the hospital.
“I was admitted to Essentia in Virginia for a high fever and cough, where they gave me plasma with the antibodies and Remdesivir,” he said.
Neither treatment worked.
“On (Sunday, Nov. 22) they could not keep my oxygen up and my lungs were full of infection, so they had to sedate and intubate me and send me to Saint Mary's Essentia in Duluth,” Porter said this week. “There I was sedated and intubated for 18 days.”
During that time his heart and lungs stopped working more than once.
He would learn later that, “they (turned) me upside down and gave me meds for my heart,” he said. “This happened twice, and the doctor said it was iffy whether I was going to make it or not.”
On Dec. 1, his wife Sylvia was informed that Jimmy had pneumonia on top of everything else and that he was started on antibiotics. On Dec. 9, the day before he posted on Facebook about being happy he was feeling better, they removed the tubes from his throat, and it seemed like he was on his way to recovering.
He was moved out of the ICU on Dec. 20 but found himself in a world of hurt again by Dec. 26.
“They found I had a GI bleed and was losing blood and was having a hard time breathing and I had to be sedated and intubated again for surgery that night to stop the bleeding,” he said. “My hemoglobin was at 4 ½. Four is you are dead. It took six units of blood to get me stable.”
Finally, on Jan. 5 he was able to go home.
Today, he is slowly recovering, and while doctors have told him he should get back to 100 percent at some point, they also let him know it is going to take a lot of work and a lot of rehab.
“I am still on oxygen and can’t get around very far and still have a lot of pain in my leg and hand,” he said.
Jimmy’s story is a cautionary tale and one that definitely got me thinking about the virus a little differently. I’ve worn my mask faithfully since the July mandate even though I don’t like it and I’ve openly questioned some of Gov. Tim Walz’s decisions along the way.
Since then some of my friends have had COVID. Their experiences, while unpleasant for a while, didn’t seem all that horrible. Jimmy is the first person I personally know that got extremely sick and that puts a new light on the situation, at least for me.
While some people might just feel like they have a cold or a mild flu – for others the virus could be a death sentence. That’s why despite the COVID fatigue many of us are feeling we must do the right thing to protect ourselves and those around us as long as this thing is out there doing damage.
Jimmy, who is still alive, thanks to what he says is a good foundation and the prayers of all his friends, family and neighbors, would be the first to tell you he was wrong about the virus.
“I believed it was political it wasn't going to do anything to me,” he said.
Now he knows better and hopes his story can save a life or, at the very least, change a few minds of people who might still be viewing the pandemic through the same narrow vision he was prior to Nov. 15.
“My experience with COVID is going to be different than (someone else’s). Some people have some symptoms and some die or have long lasting conditions due to COVID and some people make a full recovery but here is my story. It started with me on being on a ventilator and on so much medication which put me in a nightmare that I couldn't wake up out of for 18 days and I didn't know where I was, only to wake up 62 pounds lighter with no muscles in my body. I could only stand up for a moment and my oxygen levels would drop to unsafe levels making it very hard to breath and that went on for the next 30 days.”
As far as the response from the public to his recovery, Jimmy says he’s humbled and grateful.
“I was overwhelmed. It's bigger than me and speaks more to the community that we live in. I want to thank all my friends and family for all their support for me and my wife it means the world to us,” he said. “I would (also) like to thank the entire staff at Saint Mary's Essentia for giving me rock star treatment while I was there, and I’d especially like to thank Dr. Christina Bastin De Jong who was one of many who saved my life and also inspired me to share my story.”