LOOKING BACK ON 2020

Iowa's first hospitalized COVID-19 patient still recovering, but holds hope for future

Iowa City man wishes more people took mitigation steps seriously

Neil and Jeanne Bennett are pictured Sept. 2 at their home in Iowa City. Neil contracted COVID-19 after a trip to Egypt.
Neil and Jeanne Bennett are pictured Sept. 2 at their home in Iowa City. Neil contracted COVID-19 after a trip to Egypt. He was the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ first COVID-19 critical care case. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The events leading to the beginning of the pandemic in Iowa may be a faint memory among the noteworthy occurrences over the past year, but for Neil Bennett, the effects of COVID-19 have been an inescapable reality since the beginning.

In early March, he became the first patient admitted to an Iowa hospital with COVID-19.

Though he since has left the hospital and returned home, the virus has left lasting impacts on the 74-year-old Iowa City resident. And as a result, he has watched with growing disappointment as some residents ignore public health recommendations and state officials refuse to implement stronger mitigation requirements.

“Based on my experience, I cannot understand why people have elected not to follow those simple measures,” he said, referring to social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and other steps.

Bennett, along with his wife, their daughter and more than a dozen others, became infected with the novel coronavirus after traveling to Egypt in late February. Their cases were among the first in the state, reported just a week before the first instance of community spread was discovered by public health officials and marking the beginning of the pandemic in Iowa.

He was admitted in early March to the intensive care unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and placed on a ventilator soon after. Bennett, who stayed on the ventilator for several weeks, went on to spend about five months in health care facilities across Eastern Iowa before he was finally discharged and sent home in early August.

Bennett still undergoes physical therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation to build up the strength in his body and lungs and, because of the length of his hospital stay, will likely continue this care for the foreseeable future.

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Bennett, who still relies on a cane and walker for mobility, acknowledges he sometimes becomes impatient with his progress and craves a sense of normalcy — even if it’s just getting up on a ladder and changing a light bulb.

Working toward recovery also has been an opportunity for reflection, Bennett said, particularly on his family and loved ones’ experiences when doctors conveyed the seriousness of his condition. But he hasn’t escaped the psychological impact this virus has had on patients.

“Sometimes I start to reflect back to the beginning, and it’s easy to get emotional and think ‘I almost died,’” he said.

His experience has not soured his appetite for international travel. The recent news of the COVID-19 vaccines developed has given Bennett hope his family could travel again in the near future.

But until the vaccines help the country achieve herd immunity, Bennett hopes more people will take the virus seriously and practice every precaution as the country heads to the finish line of the pandemic.

“I just keep hanging onto the promise of the future, to a return to normal,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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