PONCA CITY — Fifty-one days after COVID-19 put him in the hospital, Geoffrey Cowan returned home to continue the hard work of regaining what he lost to the disease.
His physical therapist told him it could take up to a year to recover the muscle mass, strength and stamina he suffered from being sedated and on a ventilator for a month. Cowan dropped 30 pounds and was too weak to open a water bottle.
“It’s a tremendous sense of loss,” he said, counting both the physical and emotional toll.
Isolation from family and friends wore him down to the point he was crying multiple times a day. And the disease robbed him of the ability to work.
Cowan, 69, a child and family counselor, said he hopes to return to work down the road by starting with just a few hours a week.
For many Oklahomans, Cowan became the face of COVID-19 when his daughter posted a photo of him on the ventilator March 19 with the caption: “This is my DAD. This is COVID-19. This is real.”
That Facebook post by Christy Yousefi was shared 11,000 times. A television news reporter told Yousefi her initial story about Cowan had 90,000 views, making it the most viewed news report of her career.
Today Cowan is one of the 14,000 Oklahomans reported as having recovered from COVID-19. But recovery is ongoing for many people and some are experiencing long-term effects.
Progress is slow but sure. Cowan drove again for the first time June 4, one month after moving home. He completed his physical therapy visits the same week.
“Now it’s up to me to take the ball and run with it,” he said.
His long road to recovery began at Select Specialty Hospital in Tulsa. “I had to relearn everything, even just sitting up in the bed,” Cowan said.
The acute care facility was the second of three hospitals where Cowan was treated after he and his wife, Steffi, tried unsuccessfully to defeat the virus in early March.
The first stop was AllianceHealth Ponca City, where the mission was to save his life.
Cowan’s COVID-19 test came back positive March 16. A test to measure the oxygen level in his body indicated he was in respiratory failure.
“It was in short order that things spiraled out of control,” Cowan said. “I easily could have died right there in the house.”
He was admitted to the Ponca City hospital the next day and immediately put into a drug-induced coma and on a ventilator. During his time in ICU a tracheotomy was performed to help his breathing and a feeding tube was inserted. Experimental drugs were administered and a nurse who knew he liked sacred music sang hymns while caring for him.
“I have no recall whatsoever once I entered the ER doors,” Cowan said.
But nearly four weeks later he became aware of people talking about “shipping me off to Tulsa.” He remembers going through the hospital doors and seeing loved ones celebrating his discharge in the ambulance bay. He remembers the “extremely uncomfortable ambulance trip from Ponca City to Tulsa.”
Cowan still had the tracheotomy and was getting oxygen through a machine attached to it, and he still had a feeding tube.
But he was alive.
Daughter Jennifer Daniel posted the “miraculous milestone for Daddy” on Facebook. The video captured Daniel and her mom, covered in protective gear, greeting Cowan face-to-face for the first time in four weeks. It was April 13.
“We shared two minutes of tears, happiness and pure gratitude,” Daniel wrote. “Dad is ready to work … we ask that you lift him up for the emotional and physical battle to recovery.”
Two months later Daniel recalled the emotion of being with her father in that moment as “total joy.”
“Hands down, I didn’t think I was going to see him come back out,” she said. “There’s just no reason that Dad should have made it.”
Cowan agrees. “It’s by the power of prayer and the grace of God that I’m here to tell the story,” he said. “How fortunate I am to have survived this. Every step of the way key things fell into place.”
During his first week in Tulsa, Cowan wasn’t allowed any water for fear he would suck it into his airway. His mouth was terribly dry, and his lips were cracked. “All I wanted was ice chips or water,” he said. “I can’t tell you how thirsty I was. It was like someone out in the desert.”
Passing the swallow test was cause for “a great celebration.” It allowed him to have that long-desired drink of water and begin eating again.
The second week in Tulsa, Cowan started physical and occupational therapies. He was so weak that being able to stand for one minute was considered another milestone.
“I was one determined individual throughout my recovery. I worked hard,” he said.
The struggle is evident in a video showing Cowan walking April 22. Yousefi responded on Facebook: “We are beyond proud of his fight!”
The effort wore Cowan out for days.
“Fatigue is a big piece of it,” said Steffi Cowan, 64, who is recovering from COVID-19 alongside her husband.
She was admitted to the Ponca City hospital four days after him. She also suffered respiratory failure but didn’t have to go on a ventilator. A week later she was discharged, while he remained and continued his fight for survival.
“Neither one of us has regained the endurance we had,” she said on June 5, the couple’s 44th wedding anniversary. “The lungs don’t exchange oxygen as well as they used to.”
Steffi Cowan is a registered nurse at Stillwater Medical Center’s in-patient rehabilitation unit, where her husband was admitted April 28 for his final hospital stay.
The transfer gave Geoffrey Cowan a second brief visit with family.
Daughter Sarah Hraban, accompanied by 8-year-old Noah, came from Montana for one week to help her mom. The three of them drove Cowan from Tulsa to Stillwater, where he would regain the strength and skills needed to live at home.
Cowan said he worked a minimum of three hours a day — speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy — plus had daily doctor visits. Despite the fatigue, he made good progress “picking up the pieces.”
One of the biggest obstacles was not physical.
“I was beginning to succumb to those 51 days of being profoundly isolated,” Cowan said.
A social worker at the Stillwater hospital likened his mental state to post-traumatic stress disorder because of the physical and emotional trauma he experienced.
Cowan said what kept him going was being flooded with notes and prayers from family, friends, church members, grandchildren and total strangers. “People all across the country had me in their prayers,” he said.
The isolation ended May 7 when Cowan returned home to continue his recovery.
Since then, he has been working in his garden and taking walks with his wife, gradually increasing the distance. A tremor that caused difficulty writing and eating has improved.
In early June he needed help to walk up and down stairs, but three weeks later was managing alone.
“He’s just fighting like heck. He’s relentless in his attack on his recovery,” Daniel said, noting his instinct is to minimize the struggle to his daughters to protect them.
Her mom is having a harder time, Daniel said. She is among the COVID-19 survivors who haven’t been able to shake completely symptoms including low-grade fever and shortness of breath.
“It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride. It will get better,” Steffi Cowan said.
“I don’t think anyone has any way of knowing how long it will take to recover,” she said. “It’s just going to take time.”
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.