Windermere resident Jason Denney is sharing his story as a COVID-19 survivor to show others how serious the disease is and how they can make a difference.
Barely two months ago, Jason Denney was praying with his priest and preparing to say a final goodbye to his family.
But, Denney’s story was far from over. The Windermere resident is proud to say he is officially a COVID-19 survivor.
March 16 was a normal workday for Denney. Nothing was unusual about it, and he felt fine — until he got home from work that night and suddenly spiked a fever.
“All of the sudden I said to my wife, ‘I think I’m coming down with something; I have a fever,’” he said. “She felt my head, and it was a little warm, and about a half-hour later, I really went down. It was that immediate.”
Over the next couple of days, Denney began experiencing aches and pains. Then he lost his sense of smell and taste. By that Monday — March 23 — the breathing troubles began.
“That’s when I got the test for COVID-19, and I probably should have gone to the hospital then,” he said.
By that evening, he could barely walk. His wife, Robin, put him in the car, and the two headed to Dr. P. Phillips Hospital. Even as a retired member of the military, Jason Denny said the days that followed would be the roughest of his life.
“I’ve been hospitalized before, but this was just the worst,” he said. “When you’re isolated in this room, and it’s loud because they’re pushing the air out — I had a negative-pressure room — you’re all alone. That first night or two was just trying to get acclimated to the room, and then I started to get progressively worse, and they kept having to give me more oxygen. I was getting heated oxygen pressured into my nose and through my lungs.”
Two days after being admitted, things were looking grim. Doctors began discussing his prognosis and recommended putting him on a ventilator. But Denney refused — his mind was the last thing he had control of, and he didn’t want to be sedated or intubated.
“I said, ‘No, I can’t lose my power of my mind,’” he said. “They gave me more oxygen through the device I had putting the oxygen through my nose. It was very painful what I was going through. Imagine trying to breathe through an empty two-liter bottle. I was really concentrating trying to get (my oxygen levels) back up so they wouldn’t put me on ventilation and sedate me. I went through that night five minutes at a time.
“It was tough,” he said. “I was completely drenched with sweat to get through that night. I was afraid they were going to put me on they ventilator. I just didn’t want to go on it. I went through two nights like that.”
After the second night, Denney’s wife called their priest in to pray with him and talk about next steps.
Melinda Plumley, a chaplain at Orlando Health who was in charge of Denney’s spiritual care during his stay, was able to help coordinate the visitation with his priest.
“We brought him to the room and set him up right outside so he could see Mr. Denney through the window, and we literally blocked the doorways,” Plumley said. “There were two of us standing there so they could talk in private. We were able to provide that spiritual need. The priest came back two more times to meet with him, and it was, I think, so vital to his recovery. … For Mr. Denney, that was such an important part of his healing.”
As he battled the virus, Denney was battling another demon — the guilt he felt knowing his 16-year-old son also was diagnosed with COVID-19, albeit a milder case.
“My son got it while I was in there, and I feel so guilty,” he said through tears. “Just the guilt was going through my head, and that night was just the worse. I wanted to say goodbye because I thought that was it for me. … I felt helpless.”
Dr. Antonio Crespo, an infectious disease specialist at Orlando Health, was one of the doctors overseeing Denney’s treatment. Crespo said part of Denney’s treatment plan included high-flow oxygen delivery, hydroxychloroquine and tocilizumab — an anti-inflammatory drug.
“When I saw him the day he was getting worse, when he went to the ICU … when I went to see him, he had fear on his face,” Crespo said. “You could sense that, and I talked to him. … I asked him about his family, how his family was doing, and he told me that he was worried that his 16-year-old son had symptoms and that he felt guilty, and he started to cry. That was a very difficult moment that also struck me. I had to pause myself. … I also have two sons, and I know exactly how he feels. I tried to tell him that he should not fear, it’s not his fault and we were going to fight to get him back with his family.”
And Denney did fight. Through sweat-drenched nights and five minutes at a time battling to breathe, things slowly started getting better. He finally was able to sleep and breathe a bit more easily, and his sense of taste was returning. A few days later, he was discharged.
“I was shocked,” he said. “Six days earlier, I thought I was dying. I thought I was gone, and six days later, I’m going home. All I know is the hydroxychloroquine and that other experimental drug were amazing. It took a few days, but it definitely helped me. I’m very lucky.”
For health care providers such as Plumley and Crespo, those moments of victory are why they do what they do.
“We cheered in the office when I saw that he had been discharged,” Plumley said. “I ran down to the office and told the other chaplain. We were just so excited. It really warms our heart.”
“You really have a sense of victory that the team — the team includes the patient, because they have to fight with us — basically won and beat the virus, and the patient is able to go back to their family and resume activity,” Crespo said. “I do remember the exact moment I saw him leaving, (saw) his smile and he was going home — he won.”
Denney said he feels “like a million bucks” now compared to the battle he fought weeks ago. He is out walking every day and rebuilding his aerobic capacity. The fight put into perspective for him just how precious life, family and friends are.
“I’ve had multiple near-death experiences from my time in the military, and I’ve been hospitalized before, but this one here … you just think about what’s important,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is a reset. I’m going to be a better father, better husband, better friend.’ … (I’m) just rededicating to all my family and friends that I’m going to be more present for them. … I want to create more memories and use the time I have the best that I can.”
He’s also a man on a mission. He recently was cleared to return to work after receiving his first negative COVID-19 test in weeks, and he’s doing everything in his power to encourage coronavirus survivors to donate plasma.
He also wants people to know that COVID-19 survivors are not “lepers” — he has faced problems being accepted back into the community post-infection.
“I know it’s out of fear of the unknown, but it should not be happening,” he said. “This is our World War II moment. In World War II, the entire country pulled together. … I feel we can do better in our World War II moment. Follow the rules, stay away from people when you have to, and this is going to be over soon — at least the peak of it. Let’s be patient and prove to the world we can do this and come back stronger.”