After being hospitalized for nearly three months with COVID-19, Mike VanNetten had some parting words for the doctors and nurses who lined the exit outside Hamilton General’s Regional Rehabilitation Centre on Wednesday to bid him farewell.
“I hope to not see many of you ever again,” he said with a grin, as the group laughed.
“But trust me, I’ll remember each and every one of you.”
VanNetten — a 45-year-old poultry farmer better known around Norfolk County as “Chicken” — walked out of the hospital under his own power, 83 days after what he first thought was a bad cold brought him to within his last breath.
“I’m just grateful. Grateful for people like this,” VanNetten said softly, pointing to his health-care team.
“They saved my life, and I have a second chance. A wonderful wife to come back to, four great kids. I can’t thank this hospital enough, and my community back at home.”
Hospital staff were thrilled to celebrate with VanNetten and his wife, Sarah.
“It’s very exciting for the whole team,” said Dr. Faizan Amin, medical director of the hospital’s ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) program, the artificial heart-lung bypass machine that kept VanNetten alive for nearly a month.
“After such a long road, to see him get to this stage and walk out of the hospital to see his family, that makes us go back to work every day,” Amin said.
“It’s the best feeling you can have.”
VanNetten’s condition worsened quickly after he was admitted to Norfolk General on April 8 and transferred to Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington two days later to be ventilated.
At several points, doctors at Hamilton General prepared Sarah for the worst.
“There were a ton of ups and downs,” said Dr. Craig Ainsworth, who spent weeks at VanNetten’s bedside.
“Because these folks are young, for the most part, and otherwise healthy, you just have to persist with this technology and everyone doing their job, and eventually some pull through.”
Before he left the hospital, VanNetten asked to visit the COVID floor one last time.
“He thought it was important for the staff to see that he had survived — to bring their morale up,” Sarah said. “They work on people who are laying there, lifeless. To see someone come back through who’s been there, to see a success — they need that.”
Ainsworth said there are currently five COVID-19 patients on ECMO at Hamilton General, with the virus sending “young, otherwise healthy people” to the ICU as recently as last week.
“As much as things look better in terms of numbers provincially and nationally, variants are still around and we still have to be careful,” he said.
Amin cautioned that while VanNetten’s example is inspiring, ECMO is not a silver bullet against the disease.
“It’s really a last-ditch rescue type of intervention,” he said, adding that VanNetten was one of the lucky ones who could “withstand” the effects of the machine and other intensive treatments.
“I’m just hoping more people can be as lucky as I was and get out of here,” VanNetten said.
Sarah VanNetten went public with her husband’s story to underscore the danger posed by the virus and the importance of getting vaccinated to lower the risk of transmission. His recovery was cheered by friends, family and perfect strangers from across the country.
“That’s why I started this whole thing — to get people thinking about Mike and praying for Mike,” Sarah said.
Ainsworth said each story, photo and encouraging message Sarah shared with the medical team “showed us how important this guy is, clearly, to a whole bunch of people, and why it was so important that we went to the heights we did to try and get him better, recognizing that his odds were still somewhat stacked against him.”
VanNetten called the widespread support “amazing.”
“And it doesn’t stop now that I’m out,” he said. “There’s other people that need prayer and need help.”
VanNetten knows how blessed he is to have access to the rapid advances in COVID-19 treatment that saved his life.
“Six months ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“They’re learning. And it’s amazing how fast these guys learn, and how much they care. I’m sure some of them aren’t working today, and they still came out. God bless these people.”
He will now become an in-patient at Hamilton General, visiting several times a week for rehab.
But on Wednesday, VanNetten was eager to get back to Norfolk after far too long away.
“We’re going to meet a couple friends for one quick drink, and then we’re going to spend some family time,” he said.
“We’ve got four great kids, and I want to go home and celebrate with them.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator