Their first encounter came early December at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem.
Henry Gray, 57, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 4, 2020. On the fifth-floor intermediate unit, one step short of the ICU, he was receiving oxygen.

As sick as he was physically, he was no better emotionally. The virus was keeping his wife, Matilda, and their children and grandchildren from visiting. A major with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, Gray had been on drug raids and SWAT operations and oversees those and several other teams today. Lying in that hospital bed with COVID, he said, was more terrifying than anything he’d ever experienced. His father died of cancer alone in a hospital room. Would that be his fate?

“I cried the most in the hospital I ever cried in my life,” Gray said. “At times I wanted to give up.”
Then Ruth VanHoy walked into his room.

Prayer, then tough love

VanHoy, 54, was a nurse on Gray’s unit. Still is. The 20-bed unit cares for patients who are considered serious but not critical. During the pandemic, nearly all had COVID-19.

Having worked 18 years at the hospital, she understood that caring for patients means more than making sure they take their meds. During COVID-19, it means connecting patients and families by phone. Being the go-between when loved ones “visit” from the other side of the door. Offering comfort any way you can.

With Gray lying there, her gift of encouragement was about to be tested. “He was just looking out of the window,” she said. “Tears were in his eyes.”

First, VanHoy got him talking. Then she asked if she could pray with him. “Yes ma’am,” he said. After a moment of prayer, she got down to business. Tough love you might call it.

“Have you been up and out of that bed?” VanHoy asked.

“No,” Gray answered.

“Well, we’re going to get you up and out of that bed,” she told him.

With that command, a friendship was born. And a recovery was underway.

‘You can do this’

Now back to work, Gray credits everyone on his care team for helping him beat COVID-19.

“People never gave up on me at that hospital,” he said. “Every day they came with the same energy. ‘You can do this, you can do this.’ Everyone on this journey has been a blessing.”

The connection between Gray and VanHoy, though, was special.

To make sure he didn’t have an excuse to stay in bed, she got him a recliner. Then as Christmas neared and Gray faced the holiday alone in a hospital room, VanHoy had an epiphany.
Ruth VanHoy and Tree
Ruth VanHoy holding the artificial Christmas tree

The family of a patient who was going home had given her a two-foot-tall artificial tree, which she stashed in her locker at work. She called her husband, Ricky, and told him to scour the house for whatever ornaments he scrounge up. He grabbed what he could find, the headed to a few dollar stores near their home in Jonesville, North Carolina, for more. Then he drove 40 miles to the hospital to deliver the goodies (in a Nissan Rogue SUV, not a reindeer-powered sled). The decorated Christmas tree went up on a table in Gray’s room Dec. 21.

“Now you don’t have to feel like you’re in a hospital,” she told Gray.

Gray cried again, this time for a different reason. “It took a lot of thought and a lot of love,” he said. “I’m thankful that she saw something in me to help me keep fighting. I was ready to give up.”

After nearly a month in the hospital and two months recuperating at home, Gray returned to work in March. He’s been vaccinated and gotten the booster. He said he’s 90% recovered and has thrown himself into pulmonary rehab (see accompanying story) to get to 100%.

At his first command staff meeting after he returned, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. called VanHoy, put her on speaker phone and thanked her for what she had done for Gray.

Gray cried. Again. But for a different reason.

Are you ready yet?

Stop the Spread

A Postscript

VanHoy herself was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 29. A severe allergy keeps her from getting vaccinated. Of course, she urges everyone who is able to get the vaccine. She was sick at home and out of work for two and a half weeks. She’s back at work, and just returned from hiking in Utah. In March, she wrote a poem, “Look Up,” in honor of Gray. It recalls their first encounter in the hospital. Here’s an excerpt:

God places people in your path when you are at your lowest and feel you cannot go on … So when you feel like this just look up to see that person standing there.

VanHoy was there for Gray. And now he is there for her. When she’s at risk of being overwhelmed at work, she turns her thoughts to the patients she’s helped to ease the pain and struggle that COVID nurses encounter every day. She calls Gray a “shining star” who helps her find her way. The two speak every week or so, to check up on each other.

“She was a godsend,” he said.

“We’re family,” she said.

An extra thanks to a pulmonary rehab team

After his stay at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, Gray attended 36 sessions of rehab at Novant Health Pulmonary Rehabilitation in Winston-Salem. “Didn’t miss a day,” he said. Each session lasted an hour. Each pushed him to the limit. Lifting weights. Walking the treadmill. Stretching. Aerobics. Learning about the importance of a proper diet. Weighing in. (A former powerlifter. Gray is 6-foot-1 and weighs 300-plus pounds. His wife, Matilda, calls him “huskular.”) Being challenged by everyone who was part of his team. Drawing inspiration from everyone who was part of his team.

Gray is proud that he “graduated” from pulmonary rehab, not for himself but for the men and women with whom he works at the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. “Your guys are on the battlefield,” he said. “You want to be back out there with them. It’s the servant in me.”