CORONAVIRUS

'A miracle:' From coma and ventilator, Cedar Rapids man recovers from coronavirus

Staff cheers as coronavirus patient is able to walk from hospital

Larry and Diane stand Tuesday in their northeast Cedar Rapids yard after he was discharged a day earlier from Mercy Medi
Larry and Diane stand Tuesday in their northeast Cedar Rapids yard after he was discharged a day earlier from Mercy Medical Center. Larry, an avid bicyclist, spent nine days in intensive care and six days in rehabilitation after testing positive for COVID-19. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Usually healthy enough to ride a bike across Iowa for each of the last 30 years, Larry Potter was not too concerned when health care providers thought his cough might be due to bronchitis.

But then a chest X-ray showed it had worsened to pneumonia, and a test revealed COVID-19.

Admitted to the intensive care unit at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, he was placed in a coma and on a ventilator to help breathe.

After a few days, he began to improve.

This week, Potter walked out of the hospital to the applause and cheers of the staff — the first COVID-19 patient to be released from critical care at Mercy Medical Center.

“You know, I’m one of the lucky ones,” he told The Gazette after being released. “I have never been that sick in my life. This virus is extremely serious and I know a lot of people who go into the hospital like I did might not make it out.”

An avid cyclist who has ridden the full week of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa every year for the last three decades, Potter, 65, of Cedar Rapids, said he started feeling sick about March 12. Of course, he said, it occurred to him it could be the novel coronavirus. But “I’m a very healthy person, so I didn’t really think it would be that bad.”

“It started with a cough,” Potter said. “So I went into one of those immediate care places, but it’s almost impossible to get a test (for COVID-19). They thought I had bronchitis — and it could have started that way, but I just kept getting worse.”

About a week later, the cough had become more persistent and traveled deeper into his chest. An X-ray ordered by his physician showed he had pneumonia. At that time, Potter’s doctor also ordered a test for COVID-19.

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A few days later, about the last week of March, the test came back positive. Potter was sent home with an antibiotic and told to rest.

His wife, Diane Potter, said she was instructed to keep an eye on her husband in the coming days and be on the look out for changes in his breathing.

“He wasn’t getting any better,” she said. “He just kept getting worse.”

Finally, on March 29, Potter told his wife he needed to go to the hospital, so she took him to the emergency room. He was admitted to the ICU.

“It was very scary because I was not allowed to go into the hospital with him,” Diane Potter said. “A nurse literally came out to the parking lot and got him and took him into the emergency room. And he was so sick and so weak, he could barely move. I wasn’t sure if I was going to see him again.”

At the hospital, Larry Potter said doctors told him they would put him in an induced coma and on a ventilator.

“I remember the room was buzzing with doctors, an anesthesiologist, nurses and other health care providers. And I remember thinking that I couldn’t really be that bad off. I mean, I knew I was very seriously sick and I felt terrible, but I didn’t realize how critical my condition had actually gotten,” he said.

Doctors kept him on the ventilator for two days and his condition began to improve. After nine days in the ICU, he was transferred to a rehab floor where physical and occupational therapists worked with him to strengthen his lungs and rebuild muscle.

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Between the ICU and the rehab, Potter was hospitalized for 15 days — what seemed like some of the longest days of her life, Diane Potter said.

“You know, with everything that was going on, I wasn’t allowed to visit him at all. I wasn’t allowed inside the hospital,” she said. “And for several days, he was too sick and too weak to talk or text, so I couldn’t communicate with him. That was really hard, because I had never seen him that sick before. Larry has always been an extremely healthy person.”

But, Diane said, the hospital staff “did everything they could to keep me informed and make sure I understood how he was doing and what was going on.”

“When they called to tell me they were putting him on the ventilator, that was probably one of the hardest days,” she said. “I knew it was very serious and I honestly wondered if he would pull through. A lot of prayers were said that day, as well as the rest of the days.”

But her husband is a determined man, she said, which likely helped in his push to recover.

For Larry Potter, the nurses and doctors who cared for him at Mercy deserve all the credit for his recovery.

“The people there were amazing,” he said. “They were so professional and so caring, and they are there, putting their lives on the line every day. And the only thing I could do for them was be the best patient I could, so that’s what I did.”

He said the experience changed him for the better.

“It’s interesting how something that is so horrible, and has been so painful for a lot of people, can also be a positive thing,” he said. “I will never forget this experience. I believe it’s changed me. Seeing these doctors and nurses work so diligently to care for their patients, regardless of the risk to their own health, it’s made me a better person, and I am so thankful to them.”

The couple is required remain in quarantine for about another week, though it is believed he is no longer contagious.

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A video shot Monday at Mercy shows the couple — both wearing masks — walking through hospital hallways lined with masked staff members clapping and cheering.

“It was overwhelming to see how much they cared and how happy they were that my husband had recovered and was on his way home,” Diane Potter said. “I didn’t know what to expect when I went to get him. And the fact that he could walk out of there despite how sick he was, well I just feel like it had to have been a miracle.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.