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Nathan’s Story: Journey to Recovery from COVID-19 After Six Weeks at UC Health

Aug. 10, 2021

“I had to fight for my life.” 40-year-old stay-at-home father and husband reflects on his long battle with COVID-19.

James “Nathan” Watkins is now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and feels ready to return to his normal, pre-pandemic life with his wife, Monique, and two sons, Jonathon and James. The future looks bright for the Watkins family.

This could not be said in July 2020, when Nathan was fighting for his life in the hospital.

Nathan is a stay-at-home father from Charleston — West Virginia’s state capital. In 2017, the Watkins family moved to Middletown, Ohio, as Monique accepted a teaching job with the Butler County Educational Service Center. With his youngest son, James, having autism spectrum disorder, Nathan manages the household and gives him the support he needs.

In mid-July 2020, Nathan took James to see his pediatrician. During the visit, he noticed that he was having difficulty breathing and felt fatigued. When he got home, Monique recommended he see his doctor at a community hospital. Thinking it wasn’t anything too serious, Nathan saw his doctor and assumed he would return home soon after.

Instead, he was airlifted to UC Medical Center after emergently being placed on a ventilator for acute respiratory distress syndrome from COVID-19. Nathan’s doctor suspected he had COVID-19 but couldn’t treat him locally given the severity of his lung failure.

“They triaged me and told me that my oxygen level was at 85%,” James remembers. “They also told me this was an emergency. I don’t even remember the flight transport.”

Nathan never expected he would contract COVID-19. He always followed the precautions set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including wearing a mask and social distancing while in public. On top of that, he was only 39 years old at the time.

Things happened so quickly that Monique, Jonathon and James were not able to say goodbye to Nathan. They could only wait and hope for the best.

When he arrived at UC Medical Center, Nathan was rushed into the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU). From there, he was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a life-support device that helps a failing heart or lungs.

“Due to the quick actions of Nathan, his medical team in Middletown and our UC Health Air Care team, we were able to quickly respond to his failing lungs by placing him on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), giving his lungs the necessary time to heal from this horrible disease,” said Suzanne Bennett, MD, UC Health anesthesiologist, director of the UC Health ECMO program and associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

Nathan was also placed on dialysis, as his kidneys were failing. He ultimately went into a coma.

“From what my wife told me, they thought I was dead. No one wants to hear they are almost dead,” he explained. Due to his condition, he can’t recall many of the details of his hospital stay.

Back in Middletown, Monique and her sons discovered that they also had COVID-19, however, their cases were not nearly as serious. Each of them quickly recovered, while they had to wait and see what would happen to Nathan. With hospital visitor restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they could not drive to Cincinnati to visit him. Their only method of communication was through FaceTime.

For six weeks, Nathan battled for his life, hoping to make it back to his family. His UC Health multidisciplinary care team worked each and every day to save his life.

“Caring for Nathan took a whole team of healthcare professionals on our team with expertise in caring for critically ill patients 24/7,” said Joshua Trester, MD, UC Health anesthesiologist and assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at the UC College of Medicine. “There is no question that UC Medical Center was the place that Nathan needed to be. We can celebrate his survival and recovery because of the advanced critical care that UC Health is able to offer when patients need it most.”

Meanwhile back home, Monique worked hard to keep the family together. This was the longest she had been away from her husband since they met in 1999 and married in 2003. Jonathon and James wondered when they would see their father again.

Finally, in late August 2020, Nathan’s condition improved enough to be taken off of ECMO, oxygen and a ventilator. He got to see Monique for the first time in person since he was originally taken to UC Medical Center.

He was discharged and continued his post-COVID-19 recovery and rehabilitation at UC Health’s Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care. He had to build strength in his legs and learn to walk again after being bedridden for nearly two months.

After two weeks at Daniel Drake Center and three more weeks at another inpatient facility, Nathan returned home to reunite with his whole family.

A Simple Message to the Community: “Get Vaccinated”

When COVID-19 vaccinations began in late 2020, Nathan knew that he wanted to receive it as soon as he could. After his tumultuous experience over the summer, he did not want to take any chances.

“I feel like I could never be too safe. If there’s a way I can prevent myself from getting this disease again, I will,” Nathan said. “If the vaccine came out six months earlier, I would have been the first in line.”

On March 16, 2021, Nathan received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a major step in keeping him and his family safe. Twenty-eight days later, he got his second dose. Monique is also fully vaccinated now.

Nathan cannot stress enough how important it is for everyone to get the vaccine. “This will allow all of us to get back to normal life,” he explained. “Plus, from my experience, COVID-19 is not something you want to deal with.”

Although he is vaccinated, Nathan remains careful when he goes out. He continues to wear his mask, wash his hands and use hand sanitizer. He believes everyone in the community should do the same. No one can let their guard down quite yet. He knows firsthand what can happen if everyone does not do their part in the fight against the pandemic.

“My message [to the public] would be to wear your mask, wash your hands and keep your hands away from your face. I can’t stress that enough,” he said.

COVID-19 has cost Nathan many things over the past year. He missed precious time with his family, couldn’t give James the support he needs and wasn’t able to see Jonathon off to start college at Miami University. His family is the most important thing in his life.

Once the pandemic ends, Nathan looks forward to going out with his family to shop, visit new places, go to more restaurants and live a full life again. He also looks forward to going to Oxford, Ohio, to visit his oldest son while he’s in college.

It has been a year like no other for Nathan and the Watkins family. But they have remained strong and united. They look forward to enjoying life to the fullest once the pandemic ends, grateful for the care Nathan received at UC Health.