In the darkest moments of their story, all three members of the Perry family were in the ICU at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Daniel Perry, 34, was hospitalized due to COVID-19 on July 27 and sent to the ICU three days later. On Aug. 7, he was placed on an ECMO machine, typically a last hope for patients.
Mindy Perry, 32, developed a fever on July 25. The next day, she tested positive for COVID-19 and planned to quarantine at home. Six days later, she began to have trouble breathing and was rushed by ambulance to New Hanover. She was eight months pregnant.
The day after his mom was admitted to the ICU, Tucker Perry came into the world by emergency C-section at 12:05 a.m. Aug. 2. A month early, he went straight to the neonatal ICU. Twice he tested negative for COVID-19. It was six days before Mindy could hold him. “I cried a lot,” she said. “I was mad a lot. I prayed a lot.” She remembers the nurses giving her hugs and pep talks until she went home on Aug. 9. Four days later, Tucker went home.
This was all last summer, when Father’s Day 2022 was nowhere in sight.
This spring, father, mother and son are home in Hampstead, just north of Wilmington. Daniel has returned to work as a bridge maintenance engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation. He said he’s 80% back to full strength. He is still sore as his muscles regenerate, and he has nerve damage in his hands and feet.
Mindy, fully recovered, is an accountant with Live Oak Bank in Wilmington. Tucker, healthy and always raring to go, is starting to crawl. (Since their illness, Daniel and Mindy Perry have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Before their illness, they had declined. She said she and Daniel wanted more information before deciding to be vaccinated. Doctors remind us: Pregnant women should get vaccinated because of the high risks they face getting COVID while expecting.)
Mindy and Daniel look forward to spending their first Father’s Day on June 19 with Tucker. Cellphone pictures will likely be involved. At the same time, they look back with gratitude to those who they believe made this day possible: God and the people who do his work.
“He placed us in a great hospital,” Mindy said.
“I can name 50 people in the hospital that he used,” Daniel said.
‘It was a happy, happy day’
It all happened so fast.
On July 17, the Perrys enjoyed a day on their boat off Lea Island north of Wilmington. The next day, Daniel awakened at 4 a.m. with a slight fever. Six days later, he went to the ER. He was diagnosed with pneumonia due to COVID and was sent home to quarantine in a back bedroom. On July 27, unable to breathe, Daniel was rushed by ambulance to New Hanover. It would be his home for 127 days.
As breathing became more difficult, he was placed on a ventilator, also known as life support, to move air in and out of his lungs. That treatment lasted two months. It wasn’t enough, so his medical team turned to ECMO, which stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.
The machine pumps blood outside the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back to the body. In all, Daniel spent nearly 47 days on ECMO, under sedation.
At one point, Daniel was given a 6% chance of surviving. As sick as he was and for as long as he was under their care, nurses embraced him in ways that went beyond meds and machines. Early on, ICU nurse Jamie Hopkins, sensing his depression, sat and chatted with Daniel. Hoping her presence might take his mind off the illness, she asked about his job and made small talk that meant a lot to Daniel. And to her. “He really got to me,” Hopkins said.
ICU nurse Hyla Smith was there when Daniel nearly died. “I can’t tell you how many times this sweet man coded (suffered cardiac or respiratory arrest), and we brought him back,” she said.
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In a year filled with COVID death and heartbreak, Smith remembers Sept. 17. Mindy was planning to visit Daniel. Smith wanted him to look his best, so she bathed him and washed his hair. As Smith tells it, it was around 2 p.m. “I looked at him and his eyelashes fluttered. I said, ‘Oh my gosh Daniel, can you hear me?’ His eyelashes fluttered again. I said, ‘Daniel, if you can hear me, open your eyes.’ And he opened his eyes.”
Having been sedated since Aug. 6, when he was placed on a ventilator, Daniel had a question for Mindy when he was finally alert enough to ask it. He wanted to know the date. When she told him, he responded, “I missed dove season?”
The road had begun to take a new direction. Daniel was removed from ECMO and the ventilator, then moved to inpatient rehab. He spent 93 days there. On Nov. 30 – 127 days after being admitted to the hospital – he came home.
Mindy will never forget the homecoming, which included a wheelchair, walker, oxygen, and physical and occupational therapy that ended earlier this year. “He’s a fighter for sure. I have a big picture of Daniel with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen in his whole life. It was a happy, happy day. As soon as he got home, we plopped Tucker in his lap.”
Daniel, too, will never forget. Speaking for hospital patients everywhere, he said, “I was just glad to be getting out of there.”
‘It warms my heart’
The Perrys are thinking about taking their boat out, doing some fishing, maybe spending some time at the beach, weather permitting. But rain or shine, being out of the hospital and together at home, that’s all they need.
“I think I’m just going to be so giddy,” Mindy says.
At some point on that Sunday, father and son might doze off. Nearly a year after she thought this day might never come, thankful to God and the medical team that made it possible, Mindy will be ready.
“I see them fall asleep together in the chair, it warms my heart,” she says. “I always take a picture.”
Additional caption info
Main photo: While Daniel was still in the hospital in October, Mindy and Novant Health team members would put him in a recliner and wheel him outside to see Tucker. The nurse would hook him up to an oxygen tank and bring a portable monitor with him to monitor his vitals. The family would always gather on the benches by the hospital fountain. Tucker was too young to visit.
Tucker: Photo taken while Tucker was in the NICU and Daniel was on life support. Mindy had just finished feeding him. He was hooked up to multiple leads and had a feeding tube down his nose. Because Tucker was born prematurely and COVID babies often don’t eat well, the team made sure that he was getting enough nutrition and gaining weight properly.
Video Call: Mindy, Daniel and Mindy’s mother Facetiming on Aug. 4, two days after Tucker was born and two days before Daniel was sedated and put on life support. Mindy was still on oxygen in the ICU at the time and had yet to meet her baby boy face-to-face. She would have to wait several more days before that could happen.
Daniel in the hospital: Photo taken in early October after Daniel was off life support. Therapy included getting him out of bed and into a recliner. He had to be lifted into the chair because his muscles were so atrophied he couldn't sit up or stand. The blue tube is room oxygen going to his trachea, or windpipe. Mindy (left) could feed him ice because it was too early for him to drink. Recovery from severe COVID can be brutal. The skin had started peeling off Daniel’s feet as a side effect of fluid retention while on ECMO. A nurse was tending to his feet, but the process was difficult because his feet were highly sensitive due to nerve damage.