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‘I had literally given up my will to live:’ COVID-19 patient grateful to Polk hospital staff for saving him

Keith Johnson spent 26 days at Winter Haven Hospital while recovering from coronavirus

POLK COUNTY, Fla. – A Polk County man said he is thankful to be alive after battling COVID-19. He credits his recovery to the staff at Winter Haven Hospital.

Keith Johnson said he was the first person in Auburndale to be diagnosed with coronavirus. He believes he and his wife were exposed during a gathering on March 14.

He ended up at the emergency room at Winter Haven Hospital on March 28 and was admitted after testing positive for COVID-19.

He said he was put on a ventilator to help him breathe.

"I knew when I was going on I had about a 30 to 35% chance of coming off, but I knew if I didn't go on I wasn't going to last a few more days," Johnson said.

‘I had literally given up my will to live’

While on the ventilator, Johnson said he suffered from hallucinations. He said it is hard for him to think back about them now.

"I literally spent 10 days thinking somebody was trying to kill me," he said.

Hospital staff kept him on the ventilator for 10 days. Johnson said they were having a difficult time getting him off.

"My family didn't think I was going to make it through that part of the process," Johnson said.

Keith Johnson on a ventilator after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Keith Johnson on a ventilator after being diagnosed with COVID-19. (Courtesy of Keith Johnson)

Johnson was removed from the ventilator on Easter Sunday. He said it was his "Easter morning miracle."

He was then moved from ICU to an isolation room. He stayed there for 16 days alone with no family or visitors.

"I had literally given up my will to live," Johnson said.

Pulled back from death

Johnson said he wasn't willing to fight for his life until one of his nurses, MacKenzie Kohlbrand, and hospital staff showed him his life was worth it.

“There was something that I saw in Keith, that he was one of the most broken people I’ve ever seen,” Kohlbrand said.

Johnson said the turning point in his recovery was when Kohlbrand asked if she could pray for him.

"She pulled me and the staff pulled me back from death. There's no doubt in my mind," Johnson said.

Johnson said his father passed away in February. He was a pastor and his spiritual guidance. When Kohlbrand asked if she could pray with him, he said that gave him the motivation he needed to get better.

"I was broken mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, on all four levels," he said.

Road to recovery

Johnson said the second turning point in his recovery was just days after he left the ICU. He said Kohlbrand came into his room, along with a team of hospital staff, and got him out of bed and into a chair.

"She just came barreling into the room with the staff of nurses and just said, 'Keith, today's the day we're getting you out of bed,'" he said.

Kohlbrand said she knew this was an important step to his recovery.

Keith Johnson after being taken off a ventilator.
Keith Johnson after being taken off a ventilator. (Courtesy of Keith Johnson)

"I knew we had to get him out of bed first because he was the sickest," she said.

During the remainder time of his recovery in the isolation room, Kohlbrand said Johnson received care from physical and speech therapists.

"They were finally able to get into the room with him and start doing strength exercises and start working with him on feeding himself again, walking in the room with a walker," she said.

Johnson said once off the ventilator, he was extremely weak and unable to do simple tasks, like walking, eating or drinking.

"The things that we all take for granted. Just getting to shave again in the hospital. It took me a week before I could use a razor on my own," he said. "It took me a week before I could use a fork to stab a piece of meat to actually get it to my mouth."

Johnson said he lost 35 pounds during the 26 days he was in the hospital.

Sunshine Walk

Johnson was discharged from the hospital on April 24. Kohlbrand pushed his wheelchair down hospital hallways lined with staff clapping and cheering for him. The hospital called it a "Sunshine Walk."

The hospital arranged to have his wife there. He said that was the first time he had seen her in almost a month.

Keith Johnson poses alongside  MacKenzie Kohlbrand, one of the nurses at Winter Haven Hospital who helped save his life.
Keith Johnson poses alongside MacKenzie Kohlbrand, one of the nurses at Winter Haven Hospital who helped save his life. (Courtesy Winter Haven Hospital)

"When she walked out from behind the door I just lost everything. I couldn't keep it together anymore," Johnson said.

Kohlbrand said she was honored to be part of his recovery.

“His recovery was a blessing to watch. It really was. It was a blessing to be part of, too,” she said. “I know for myself and for many of us on the floor, it reminded us why we do what we do and why we love to serve others.”

‘You slowly work back into the things you enjoy’

Months later, Johnson is back home and said he is doing better, but his journey to recovery isn't over.

He said after leaving the hospital he had blood pressure issues, difficulty breathing, and he still hasn't regained his sense of taste.

"It takes a very, very long process just to get back," Johnson said. "You slowly work back into the things you enjoy."

Johnson documented his coronavirus story on Facebook. He said he is hoping to raise awareness about the virus and how devastating it can be.

He said this is his way of repaying the health care workers who fought hard and risked their lives to save his.

“Do everything I could to educate to minimize the number of people that ended up in the hospital and the number of people that would expose those that I care so much about,” Johnson said.

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