Rehab, surgery part of still-long road to COVID-19 recovery for first critically-ill Iowan

Published: Oct. 21, 2020 at 6:57 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Before he tested positive for COVID-19, Neil Bennett was a healthy 74-year-old man who was a world traveler and helped his grandson build tree houses. That all changed after his diagnosis.

Bennett, of Iowa City, his wife Jeanne, and his daughter Gwen had the Egyptian cruise of a lifetime. But, when they returned to Iowa City, Neil started to feel sick and was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“I ended up on the floor unable to get up,” Neil said. “And, so, Jeanne called 911.”

His condition worsened quickly after his diagnosis.

“His kidneys had almost shut down,” Gwen said. “I got the call the next morning that he had been intubated.”

Bennett spent 152 days away from his family battling to stay alive, and it was touch-and-go many nights.

“There were several days when I was in the ICU at the University [of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics] where it was uncertain whether I would actually live," Neil said.

“More nights than I care to recall that we weren’t sure he was going to be with us in the morning,” Gwen said.

Neil was able to fight effectively and walked out of UnityPoint-St. Lukes Transitional Care Center in Cedar Rapids under his power.

“I saw a couple of signs when I came out that said ‘you’re a miracle.’ I’ve had several of my friends say you realize you are a miracle," Neil said. "To some degree, they had almost pronounced me dead a couple of times. I somehow found a way to fight through that.”

74 days after being released from the hospital, Neil still struggles to walk.

“I’m still not able to walk without the walker,” Neil said. “I’m looking forward to the day that I can walk unassisted. I don’t have a real good sense of balance, so the walker is kind of important to me.”

If you watch the video interview, you can tell Neil also struggles with his voice.

“Trying to figure out what we need to do to sort of re-strengthen my voice," Neil said. "When I talk I find myself running out of air, and having to stop mid-sentence and get a gasp for air.”

Neil has been working hard in therapy to regain what COVID-19 stole from him, with appointments that cover almost every day.

“Five days a week,” Neil said. “Monday, Wednesday, Friday, do pulmonary rehab at the University of Iowa. Tuesdays and Thursdays, do physical therapy at Progressive Rehab. I try to do exercises and a little bit of workout here at home.”

Neil is also hopeful surgery can help.

“I’m scheduled to go in and have, well, sometimes they call it an angiogram,” Neil said. “They’ll go down and put a stent in my left leg, pretty much in the knee area. I’ve got reduced blood flow in both legs.”

Neil is trying to stay positive through it all, but it’s not easy.

“I’m just kind of tired of feeling tired,” Neil said. “And there’s a physical aspect of that and I think there’s a mental aspect of that. Very thankful to just be alive and, I guess, as time goes on you maybe have a tendency to almost forget that once in a while.”

Jeanne remembers the feeling of how close Neil came to not leaving the hospital.

“We came so close to losing him and it’s just awesome having him back,” Jeanne said.

The outpouring of support from people close to him can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.

“I may get a little emotional when I think about how good friends and relatives have all been to offer and provide support to me," Neil said.

It’s something that this couple will not forget anytime soon.

“I just think God and thank everybody for all your help," Jeanne said. "Everything you’ve done. Doctors, nurses, caregivers, bless you all.”

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