MARTINSVILLE, IND. – Ron Osborn sits on his front porch while cars drive by and honk. He waves back, even if he doesn’t know the drivers. His voice crackles, but his wife, Debbie, makes sure he never takes off his mask.
“You know what?” Debbie asks Ron, brushing a fuzz off his bald head. “You’ll have to marry me again.”
“Why?” His squinting eyes give away his smile under the mask. “Once is enough.”
“I can renew your vows,” their son Jason says.
Ron pauses. “I probably won’t be ready yet.”
Ron and Debbie have been married for as long as they’ve lived in Martinsville, Indiana — almost 50 years. Before this year, the two had never gone a day without talking and only a few days without seeing each other.
But now, Ron doesn’t remember much from the past four months. He didn’t see local businesses shutter, or watch politicians fight over whether to wear masks, or remember the day when 100,000 people had officially died of COVID-19.
While the world was flipped on its side, the Osborn’s world stopped.
Most COVID-19 patients older than 70, such as Ron, stay in the hospital for a week or two, according to Indiana hospitalization data. The record for the longest stay that Ron’s family could find was 107 days.
Ron fought the virus for 115 days across three hospitals. He turned 72 on Aug. 14.
He was admitted April 1, when there were only about 2,500 cases in Indiana and when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was still recommending people not wear masks so they could be saved for medical professionals.
Ron’s struggle with COVID started out like most. He was flying back from a trip to Las Vegas, one that he took every year. It was early March, so no one wore masks on the plane because it wasn’t normal yet, and he kissed Debbie in the airport. A few days later, both started to feel sick. Jason dropped off groceries at their house so they could quarantine, just to be safe.
“If we get this, we aren’t going to survive,” Debbie remembers telling Ron when the virus first reached the United States.
Neighbors were shocked when they learned Ron was in the hospital. Most didn’t even know the virus had reached Martinsville, so few precautions were taken. The Osborns never thought the virus was a hoax, but like so many others, they weren’t too concerned, either.
Ron was at risk because of his age — 71 then — but he was always pretty healthy. He still worked full-time at Walmart. He played golf regularly and preferred walking over driving. He’s dressed as Santa for the town every Christmas for the past 15 years. When he got sick, some parents didn’t tell their kids that Santa was sick until they knew he was going to make it.
Three days after being admitted to the hospital for observation, Ron was on a ventilator. Debbie was still sick but was healthy enough to stay home. Two weeks later, doctors called and said Ron had a 5% chance of survival.
In late April, doctors told the family there was nothing else they could do. Ron would never walk out of the hospital, a social worker told them — and if he did, he’d be a “vegetable.”
Ron and Debbie have spent most of their lives in Martinsville. They built their family there. They found community there, and for years and years, the Osborns have “never known a stranger,” Jason says.
So when word got out that Ron was in the hospital, people messaged Jason for updates nearly every day. Shortly after, he created a Facebook group so Ron’s loved ones could know how he was doing.
More than 500 people joined and followed Ron’s journey from IU Health Morgan Hospital to St. Vincent Seton Specialty Hospital in Indianapolis to St. Francis to several rehab facilities.
And when Jason didn’t update the page in a few days — usually because the nurses told him, “Nothing has changed” — he would get messages from people asking for updates, anyway. Someone at a local hair salon asked Jason’s wife, Christa, how Santa was doing.
Every day, Jason prayed that if it were God’s will, He would heal his dad. Debbie didn’t include the “if it’s Your will” part in her prayers. She just begged.
There was never a day that Ron magically improved. But by early May, he started showing signs that his spirit was still in the body his family barely recognized.
He’d squint when they told him “I love you,” and even though nurses said it was involuntary, they felt like it wasn’t. Then, one day, he opened and closed his eyes on command.
He smiled, and the twinkle in his eyes came back. He walked 30 feet with a walker. Little things.
One day, when the nurse put his speaking valve in, he asked if he could talk to his son — he hadn’t heard his voice in more than 10 weeks.
“Sleigh bells ring,” Jason sang out the first time he got to visit him in the hospital.
Ron responded. “Are you listening?”
Debbie and Ron stay out on the porch for a while, as it’s the only way they’ve really seen anyone in person since Ron came home July 24. Debbie isn’t taking any chances, especially knowing that some people in town still refuse to wear masks and social distance.
She goes to grab his hand, but hesitates.
“Did you hit this on something?” she asks, holding up his finger and pointing at a purple spot near his nail.
“I don’t know,” Ron says, letting Debbie fling his hand around so she can look at the spot from every angle.
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Red or purple spots under the skin can be a sign of COVID-19. Nurses told Debbie to call if she saw any on Ron, just in case it’s another strain of the virus.
It’s probably just a regular blood blister, they conclude. Most people probably wouldn’t have even noticed. But the Osborns have to be extra careful now.
The virus permanently damaged Ron’s lungs and possibly his heart. He has to do breathing treatments twice a day. He lost at least 50 pounds and is having trouble regaining his strength. His voice shakes when he talks, and he needs a walker to get in and out of the house. Even Debbie, who had a “normal” case, has significant hearing loss and gets out of breath from helping Ron stand.
But they’re home together again, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the porch. To the Osborns, that’s a miracle in itself.
“Let’s go in,” Debbie says, and as she helps Ron up, she takes a long, deep breath.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Longest COVID hospitalization may belong to Indiana Santa