Nearly dead from COVID: Melbourne man back home after coma, 221 days of hospital care

Jack Ghiz on ventilator for 165 days, daughter says

Jack Ghiz describes his seven-month COVID-19 hospital ordeal.
Jack Ghiz describes his seven-month COVID-19 hospital ordeal. ((MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY))

After contracting COVID-19 and teetering at the brink of death, Jack Ghiz spent so many weeks on a ventilator that his wife made mental plans for his funeral — and his daughter wrote his obituary, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

But defying long odds, the Melbourne 54-year-old survived the coronavirus after enduring 221 straight days inside three Space Coast hospitals. That’s more than seven months.

Ghiz returned home last week, on Aug. 10. A once-burly 6-foot-6-inch man who portrayed the giant Goliath in a church play, his weight plummeted from 280 pounds to 188 at one point. And he remains so weak he can barely walk.

[TRENDING: Death toll from Haiti earthquake nears 1,300 | US mulls COVID vaccine boosters for elderly | Here’s where Fla. unemployment accounts stand after PIN resets]

“I can count on two fingers the amount of people that have made it that were similar to his case, with all of the complications and things that he had,” said Katy Hamilton, an intensive care unit nurse who treated Ghiz at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne.

“He’s a very, very lucky man,” Hamilton said.

Now, Ghiz is recuperating at home from his near-death COVID-19 ordeal. Transparent tubes in his nostrils carry supplemental oxygen from a portable machine into his damaged lungs.

Every hour, his physical therapist wants him to get out of the recliner and walk about 50 feet through his kitchen to the dining room table, where he does a U-turn and returns to the living room.

Ghiz slowly pushed his wheeled walker along this short trek Thursday — and by the time he finished, he was gasping for breath. According to his fingertip pulse oximeter, his blood-oxygen level dropped from 90 to 68 during the brief journey.

Jack Ghiz describes his seven-month COVID-19 hospital ordeal. ((MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY))

“I didn’t think I was going to be a candidate for COVID. I’ve worked outside my whole life every day: hard work. I’ve never been sick, never been to a hospital except for stitches and a dislocated shoulder,” said Ghiz, who felt his first symptoms on Christmas Eve.

“I ended up getting it, and I thought, ‘I can kick it. I’m a tough guy.’ Well, I didn’t kick it. I lost almost a whole year. By the time I’m better, it will be over a year,” he said.

“I’m not a poster child. But yes, I will get vaccinated. Yes, I will wear a mask when I’m out in public. If I get it again before I’m fully healed, there may not be enough meat left in my lungs to deal with it,” he said.

Ghiz and his wife, Amy, own Jack Hammer Plus, a Melbourne landscaping-demolition company. He is now seeing a home health nurse, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist.

Ghiz said he fell ill with COVID-19 while operating an excavator on a land-clearing job, and he lost his sense of taste on Christmas. At that time, Florida vaccinations were only readily available for people age 65 and older, residents and staffers of long-term care facilities, and health care personnel.

By Jan. 2, Ghiz was rendered helpless and running a fever of 103 — “I was coughing and gagging and running out of breath and getting stars in my eyes” — and he was admitted to Holmes.

He would not go home for the next 221 days.

Amy Ghiz said doctors sedated her husband in a medically induced coma on Jan. 22 — and he said he lost touch with reality until he “woke up” in mid-June. Instead, he was immersed in vivid James Bond-esque dreams of castles, hunting, jumping from helicopters onto rooftops, and other wild visions.

“He was on our unit for months. I mean, he just had complication after complication. There were a lot of days where we just didn’t think he was going to make it,” Hamilton said.

Worsening the toll on Amy Ghiz, she was initially barred from visiting him in the ICU because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I remember the first time that she saw him. It was really emotional. I think she was kind of like in shock the first time she saw him, because she walked in and she just didn’t say a word,”  Hamilton said. “And she just sat down next to him, and she held his hand for a few minutes.”

“I think it was just a lot for her to take in all at once,” Hamilton said. “When he went into the hospital, he was this big guy working on lawns and all kinds of things — and now, to walk in and see him as this frail man who’s being artificially kept alive on machines.”

Hamilton said Amy Ghiz kept praying for her husband, and she decorated his room with flowers, letters and pictures. Staffers played Christian music in his room every day.

Jack Ghiz’s daughter, Alisha Carden, said he was on a ventilator from Jan. 16 to June 29, a 165-day span. Midway through, in March, he was transferred to Kindred Hospital Melbourne, a long-term acute care facility.

Ghiz said his lungs collapsed during his extended hospitalizations, and he nearly died multiple times when his medical condition “crashed.”

“May 1, I wrote his obituary. I still have it on my phone. It’s very sad to look at. We’re very thankful we didn’t have to use it,” said Carden, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“We did all the (memorial service) planning. We were finding the pictures. Every week, they said, ‘It’s a grim diagnosis.’ So we prepared for the absolute worst. May was probably the worst month,” Carden said.

Instead, Ghiz’s blood-oxygen saturation levels eventually started to rise, and he recovered. He remembers “waking up” in June inside an unfamiliar room at Kindred.

“When I came to, I couldn’t even lift my legs up. I had spent six months in a frozen position, with a machine breathing and inhaling and exhaling for me,” Ghiz said.

“I was just a bag of bones at that point, I guess,” he said.

COVID-19 has struck the Ghiz family hard. Jack’s mother, Marilyn, died of the coronavirus in September. Carden, who is 33, was hospitalized for a week last fall after contracting the virus. And Amy Ghiz fell sick with COVID-19 for about a month.

Jack and Amy Ghiz, who met at a church class, celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in June when he was in Kindred. They credit God and prayers from parishioners at Faith Fellowship Church near Palm Shores and Discover Life Church in Eau Gallie for helping save his life.

“He was here for 134 days. He had a very poor prognosis throughout his stay,” said Jennifer Tomazinis, Kindred’s director of quality risk management. She said her staff’s respiratory therapists and pulmonologists played a key role in his recovery.

“Let me tell you: Jack’s spirit was always willing. He always had a smile, and he was always ready to fight. And I think that was really important.” Tomazinis said.

Ghiz was transferred on July 29 from Kindred to Sea Pines Rehabilitation Hospital in Melbourne to undergo physical therapy and prepare to return home.

“Jack was a remarkable patient. By the time he arrived here at Sea Pines, he had been through an incredible ordeal already,” Sea Pines Rehabilitation Hospital CEO Mark Racicot said.

“He came in with a great attitude, ready to focus on his rehabilitation. And he was committed to a recovery. Our team was very, very proud of him and happy to work with him toward that recovery, due to his commitment and his dedication to getting back on his feet,” Racicot said.

Ghiz said he is humbled by his near-fatal COVID-19 experience, and he will no longer take the people in his life for granted.

“I’m out there chopping trees down, pulling them out of the woods on an excavator, slinging stuff at the landfill. I got Day 1 of COVID — and to go from that to, can’t even lift my arm off the bed,” Ghiz recalled, sitting in his recliner.

“I see how easily I can be taken out. So this time around, everybody’s getting the cream off the top,” he said.