In the last year and a half, Donnell Hunter has missed his daughter’s first day of kindergarten, his son’s standout season of youth football, the birth of his grandson and countless other memories, all because of his long battle against Covid-19.
The 43-year-old spent 549 days in hospitals and long-term acute care facilities after falling ill with Covid-19 in September 2020, well before vaccines were available, his family said. He finally made it home to Roswell, New Mexico, on Friday.
“I don’t take anything for granted, that’s for sure. I went 550 days without seeing my kids, I have a grandson that I hadn’t met and that is the big thing,” Donnell told CNN on Monday.
“I love my family, my kids and my wife more than I love myself. So when I would fight, I would fight for them,” the father of seven said.
Donnell is one of the 4.5 million Americans who have been hospitalized due to Covid-19 since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started tracking hospitalizations in August 2020. His story is unusual. The average length of hospital stay for adults was 5.5 days during Omicron, compared to 8 days last winter and 7.6 days during Delta, according to the CDC.
Donnell’s medical bills are still coming in, and the latest hospital bill was over $1 million alone, according to the family. With Donnell yet unable to breathe fully on his own due to the lingering effects of his Covid-19 complications, the family is now adjusting to their new life.
‘I thought I could just fight it off’
Donnell, who worked as a plant operator at a gas company, was at work in September 2020 when he started having trouble breathing.
“Our shift was seven on, seven off, and I happened to be on graveyard and I just, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. It was so bad, he asked his boss for a ride to the hospital in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he said he “first found out that I was positive for Covid.”
He went home, but within 24 hours, he was back in the hospital, breathless. “I thought I could just fight it off, but there was no way,” Donnell said.
The hospital staff initially told his wife, Ashley Hunter, they could handle his care. Hours later, she got the call that he was being flown to a larger hospital in Albuquerque, a more than three-hour drive away.
A week later, Ashley was helping her children with online schoolwork when she called her husband for help with a math question.
“He didn’t answer,” the 34-year-old said. “I called the hospital and they told me that they had intubated him and put him on the ventilator.”
‘I would only cry in the shower’
Seeing her husband in that state over a video call was heartbreaking to Ashley.
Donnell had always worked to stay healthy, despite some long-term health conditions. He frequently worked out at the gym and officiated youth football, basketball and volleyball. He also coached basketball in his free time.
When he got Covid-19, Ashley worried about how the disease would affect him, as Donnell has had a kidney condition for most of his life. At age 15, he went into kidney failure after being diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a disease that inflames and injures the part of the kidney that filters blood.
He was on dialysis for 15 years before receiving the gift of a kidney transplant in 2015, his wife said. Donnell is immunocompromised due to the immunosuppressants he takes to prevent his body from rejecting the kidney.
The first month of his hospitalization weighed on Ashley, she recalled. “I would only cry in the shower. I didn’t want to let my kids see me cry,” she said.
She later sat down their children, aged 4, 8, 11, 13 and 14, and said it was OK to be sad. Donnell also has two children of his own, aged 21 and 27.
“I told them, ‘We’re not crying because anything bad is going to happen. We’re crying because we miss him, and we wish he was here with us,’” she said.
Ashley set up video call prayer sessions for people to join during Donnell’s time in hospital. When she wasn’t able to be in Donnell’s room, she asked the nurses to put the call on so he could hear it.
While Donnell battled Covid-19 and the effects of it, Ashley struggled, missing the support from her husband, she said. She went through a phase where she shut off her emotions to get through it all because she was scared, she said.
“We’ve lost a lot of family members, a lot of friends,” Ashley said. “My grandmother died throughout this and he’s my biggest support. When I didn’t have him, I just was pretty emotionless for a while.”
Donnell has been on a ventilator since fall 2020. He spent time at nine different hospitals and long-term acute care facilities in two states, Arizona and New Mexico, as his family tried to find him the best care.
When Donnell was transferred to Arizona in January 2021, Ashley drove 8 hours to spend a week with him. Then, his mother would come for the next week. The family went on like this for months, Ashley said.
A parade welcomed him home
On March 4, sheriffs escorted Donnell and his family as they pulled into Roswell, Ashley said.
A parade of people greeted the family at home with balloons, posters, flowers and more. “He definitely got a warm welcome home,” his wife said.
“I think that just speaks volumes to the person that he is,” she said. “He was truly loved and missed and supported throughout this. We’ve been so blessed to have so much support from the community.”
The fanfare touched the family, but for Donnell, the best part was getting to meet and hold his now-year-old grandson, he said.
“(My grandson) was the first one I saw, and he acted like he’s known me all his life,” Donnell said. “He was reaching for me, giving me a kiss. It was so awesome.”
A new life at home
After only a few days home together, the family is adjusting to a new lifestyle. For Ashley, she’s trying to juggle the role of caregiver with everything else she does.
Ashley described thinking of “rainbows and sprinkles” whenever she imagined having Donnell back home. “And now that we’re here like, oh wow, I’m his nurse, I’m a respiratory therapist and his wife. I’m the kids’ mom. I have so much going on,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Ashley had been working at a local business, but the shop closed in May 2020 because of Covid-19. Donnell fell ill months later. Now, with Donnell’s medical expenses piling up, a family friend set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the family.
Ashley is also learning what goes into Donnell’s care and it’s been a bit overwhelming, she said.
“I’ll have to really think all the processes through and it’s kind of scary that they just trust me and put his life in my hands,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that can go wrong. I set up the room and try to have everything very organized and have emergency stuff out and ready. And just talking with the kids and making sure they know how important all the equipment is, and we’re not tripping over his oxygen cannula.”
Regardless of the new responsibilities and the new challenges, Ashley maintains that they are blessed.
Donnell has come a long way. He has a ventilator at home, which he uses when he sleeps. He uses an oxygen concentrator to get supplemental oxygen during the day.
He lost some function in his right hand, his dominant one, but he hopes he can get that back someday, he said. These days, he can walk with assistance.
“I can’t walk fully yet, I need a walker, I have a wheelchair, so it’s different,” he said. “I’m home, but things still ain’t the same yet, so I still have a long recovery here at home.”
Donnell aspires to get well enough to go back to work someday, but he knows it will take a long time, he said.
“I think people may doubt him, but I 100% don’t doubt it that he’s going to get back to what he was before,” Ashley said.
Donnell knows he’s a lucky man because of his family’s support. He said he saw plenty of patients who were alone, but thankfully, he never felt that way.
“I want to thank God first of all, but my wife and my mom have been there for me this whole thing,” Donnell said. “The support system I had is unbelievable.”
For anyone needing a little hope, Donnell had the following advice.
“Just keep the faith,” he said. “Focus on faith, not fear.”