COVID-19 Patient Story – Jeff Eppley


After 63 days in the Hospital with 28 of those days on a ventilator because of COVID-19, Jeff Eppley, 52, of Hummels Wharf is reflecting on the months behind him and the months ahead.

As Jeff worked through his follow-up physical therapy visit in mid-February with Carey Napp, Physical Therapist, he took a few breaks at her advisement, and during those moments when trying to catch his breath, he said, “I just feel like I should be farther than this.”

Carey reminded him that as someone recovering from COVID-19, every system of his body was impacted and it will take time to get those parts of his body working together again.

“You came in here in a wheelchair and on oxygen the first time I saw you in outpatient rehab,” she said. “Today you came in on your own two feet without the need for oxygen—that’s progress.”

It all began in the fall of 2021. Jeff’s wife of 21 years, Jessica, developed COVID-19 in mid-October and was off of work for the standard waiting period. Her symptoms, and those of their children Devin, 18, and Kailee, 14, who also tested positive were mild. Jeff, however, would take a different path.

“I kept encouraging my mom toward vaccination because of her health issues and my dad too as a cancer survivor, but for us, I just thought, we’re young, we’re healthy, we don’t have to hurry to do it,” said Jessica.

Jeff, who has anxiety issues, said, “It wasn’t that I didn’t think about vaccination, I just kept reading so many social media things that made me feel on the fence about it. There were just so many mixed messages about the vaccine, and like Jess said, I was healthy so I thought I had time to figure it out.”

Starting symptoms on October 25, Jeff didn’t have time to figure it out, he would be transported to Evangelical by ambulance on November 2, after he began experiencing breathing issues while Jessica, a registered nurse, was at work. Devin texted to say Jeff was breathing strangely and an at-home oxygen reader indicated his oxygen levels were only at 65%.

Once at the Hospital, it was clear that Jeff was in distress and he was admitted to the Critical Care Unit from the Emergency Department. For seven or eight days, the CCU team worked on Jeff’s breathing and to keep him comfortable. It became clear it wasn’t working. It was then that they advised him that it may be time to go on the ventilator.
“We called the kids by video chat,” Jeff said. “I wanted to say goodbye to them without them knowing I was saying goodbye, because I knew that most people do not come off of the vent. That is the last thing I remember that was real during the whole month I was on the vent.”

For Jessica, on the other side of the bed, she remembers the next almost month in a completely different way. “I sat with him every single day. I talked to him. I watched his stats. I contacted my other friends in the nursing field to talk to them about what was happening.”

“People from all over were praying for him, family, friends, coworkers, even a group in Egypt through the efforts of a nurse friend who was talking about Jeff’s case with a physician at another hospital and was from there,” said Jessica. “I went to Jeff’s bedside and said, ‘listen here, you have people praying for you, internationally even, so now you need to do your part and fight.’”

The week of Thanksgiving, Jess was told what she didn’t want to hear. Jeff wasn’t getting better, and it was time to decide when to remove him from the vent.

“How do you pick a day for your husband to die?,” said Jessica. “After consulting with my friends and family, I just decided that we would get through Thanksgiving as a holiday and figure it out. I went to him on Thanksgiving day and turned on the parade so we could watch it together one more time like we always did. I described the floats to him.”

The staff came in to wash and flip Jeff, something they did every day, keeping him on his stomach for 16 hours of the day to use his lungs most efficiently and then flipping to his back, and when they did, he opened his eyes.

“He wasn’t completely there, but that was the first time he was even somewhat with me,” said Jess. “Dr. Khan came in and said, ‘I’m trying to say this with no emotion, but Jeff’s labs are looking better.’”

“She asked me to play music for him, so I played his Spotify list when I was there. He was down to two IV pumps in the days ahead until one day I came in and he was back up to six. I knew we were back on the rollercoaster.”

He went down and then up again, and during the first week of December Dr. Hannon decided he was going to try to work to get Jeff off of the vent. At first there was talk of a tracheotomy but as they worked with the respiratory team to lessen the sedation, they decided Jeff was going to be able to breathe on his own without it.

The work was not done. With Jeff being completely immobile for nearly a month, he was weak in all areas. His muscles had lost strength, his lungs weren’t at capacity, he had no appetite for real food, and his throat and speech were affected by the vent tube.

He would spend the holidays of Christmas and New Year’s in the Hospital first in Intermediate Care and then Acute Rehabilitation to make it possible for him to go home to his family.

“I lost 60 pounds,” said Jeff. “A month and a half of my life was just missing. I don’t remember it. There were seven other people on vents at the same time as me and they didn’t survive. I felt guilty. I was no better than any of them and they had people who loved them too and yet they didn’t make it.”

“Knowing that, I made up my mind that I’m going to earn every day I have left to live and make the most of it.”

Jeff finished his time at the Hospital working at going home. His goal was to eat regular food by Devin’s 18th birthday on December 18 so he worked with speech therapy on swallowing so he could have a root beer ice in celebration.

Still not home for Christmas, Kailee brought in a two-foot Christmas tree decorated with LED lights and silver origami hearts she made from gum wrappers. Jessica packed up all of Christmas and wheeled presents and all in on a wheelchair to Acute Rehab.

On January 3, 2022, she wheeled Jeff out of the Hospital’s main entrance with staff and Hospital administration waiting to say goodbye to them.

“We all knew this was a miracle,” said Jessica. “Thank you feels so hollow. Everybody—every single person I interacted with in any way—went above and beyond and helped to make the journey end positively.”

She continued, “Every member of the staff of Evangelical from environmental services through care staff was amazing. Over such a long hospital stay, we saw individuals from every shift and every field. The clinical staff from Critical Care, to Intermediate Care, to Acute Rehabilitation literally took a broken man and put him back together again. There are no words that could possibly say thank you enough for the compassion they showed to Jeff, me, and our kids.”

As for Dr. Ashburn, the Hospital’s intensivist who rode the journey out with them, Jessica said, “How do you thank somebody for giving you your whole world back? I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to tell me the difficult things he had to tell me, knowing he was feeling their weight too.”

As for the future, Jessica has been vaccinated as has Kailee. Jeff is waiting the allotted time period necessary and once healthy, will receive his too.

“The virus attacks everyone differently,” Jeff said. “I almost died twice and knowing now, how sick you can get even if you think you’re in good health, I wouldn’t take that risk again.”

And risk is what Jeff thinks about. “I still remain scared about what my ‘new normal’ will be. I’m used to being very active but now I worry about getting sick from a cold or pneumonia and what that might do to my lungs. I have to adjust to a whole new lifestyle of planning things out, working on my breathing, my movement, making sure I have an inhaler close by if needed for shortness of breath. I’m glad to be here but life is different.”

For the family, they are making up for lost time and missed holidays. They held a full Thanksgiving celebration on Super Bowl Sunday and are focusing on their children and making sure they are okay after everything that has happened.

“Since I was 14, I’ve volunteered in some way with fire service and emergency response, saving some lives along the way. There’s a small part of me that wonders if this second chance isn’t because of those efforts,” said Jeff. “I know from here on out I’m making the most of every single day.”