As a full-time welder and cattle breeder, Andrew Hisler was in excellent health until November, when he contracted COVID-19. After being hospitalized for three months during which he developed pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis, Hisler was discharged on February 14th.
Hisler is still on the road to recovery, and it’s a path that his doctors tell him will be challenging.
The 61-year-old Somerville man was unvaccinated when he tested positive for COVID-19. On the third week, when he experienced worsening respiratory symptoms, Hisler was sent to a hospital in Damariscotta by his doctor. However, he was sent home without explanation. But Hisler’s condition worsened, so he called for an ambulance and was taken to the MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Alfond Center for Health in Augusta.
“No one expected me to live, but I did,” Hisler said in an interview last week. “I want to tell you right now, it’s scary when you can not breathe.”
Hisler’s organs began to fail when he arrived at the hospital. He said his heart was going out of rhythm and they had to use a defibrillator to shock it back into the rhythm.
According to Heidi Winslow, the head nurse at 1 West, the floor of the MaineGeneral where Hisler resided, he was put on a BiPap machine that helped with breathing for the first three or four days of his stay. For most of his stay, Hisler was on Vapotherm, a high-flow meshless system that delivers 40 gallons of oxygen per minute directly into the patient’s nose.
His discharge level and the level he is currently at is 5-6 liters per minute, but he said he hopes to eventually switch to 4 liters and then be taken completely by oxygen supplementation.
While Hisler says his three-month hospital stay was a long and frightening ordeal, according to the hospital, it is not uncommon for patients severely affected by COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, long stays are not uncommon for COVID-19 patients,” said Jennifer Riggs, chief nurse at MaineGeneral Medical Center. Such admissions can range “from five to six days for mild illness, to many months for serious illness, especially in patients who require a ventilator to breathe.”
For the first six weeks, Hisler received no guests according to hospital protocol due to the pandemic. The first week, he did not even have his cell phone charger, so when his phone died, he felt very isolated from the outside world, including his dachshund, who used to go everywhere with him. He could use the hospital phone, but he did not have many phone numbers stored.
When he left the intensive care unit, visitors were allowed for a short period, but then that changed again. One rule allowed only one visitor a day for the majority of his stay. Hisler, who said his girlfriend would bring him items and took care of his dog, Squeeker, said the nurses at 1 West made his experience more bearable by talking to him.
“I still have a lot to recover, I know that,” said Hisler, noting his extreme weight loss and muscle tone along with the fear that he would never go again. “Right now I can not go very far. It’s almost as if you have to learn to walk again. ”
Hisler said the doctor told him he probably won’t work again because his lungs are really damaged. For someone who is used to working, and returning to work was his goal, it was a lot to work on. Hisler, however, remains optimistic. He said he had a lot of people praying for him and his recovery, along with great care from the staff at 1 West.
“They went out of their way. It was incredible,” he said. “I can not say enough about them. If I was cold because I lost a lot of weight, they would come in and put a warm blanket on me.”
Recently, Hisler received a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine – something he wished he had done before – along with flu and pneumonia vaccines. He’s now waiting for two months so he can get his booster shot. If he takes the time, Hisler says he can get in and out of bed. He has learned not to hurry, otherwise he may end up in the hospital again.
Part of his recovery includes medication and physiotherapy, which he started at the hospital. Several health professionals visit his house during the week and help with his rehabilitation. They plan to bring a walker to his house soon.
When people visit Hisler in his home now, they wear masks to avoid bringing in any disease.
“I want my lungs to heal,” Hisler said. “I can not afford to catch anything.”