A Remarkable Recovery

Ron Kunihiro shares his weeks-long battle with COVID-19

There are many uncertainties surrounding the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), but one thing is clear — the virus is not formulaic in how it affects people. Some infected individuals are completely asymptomatic, while others spend weeks hooked up to ventilators, fighting for their lives. Ron Kunihiro, a 78-year-old resident of Haymarket, fell into the latter category.

Kunihiro began feeling ill on March 14, presenting the high fever that is considered to be a typical COVID-19 symptom. Despite self-isolating at home, within a week, his symptoms had worsened to the extent that he sought treatment at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center. He was admitted to the hospital on March 20 and did not return home until May 9.

 An Extended Stay

 Kunihiro was in poor condition, and his vital signs were alarmingly low. He was immediately intubated and taken to the intensive care unit (ICU), where a team of doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners worked for the next 41 days to keep him alive.

One of his care team members was Steve Skobel, a nurse practitioner specializing in palliative care. Skobel’s role was to help with symptom management, as well as communicate with Kunihiro and his family to ensure he was getting the most appropriate treatment for his needs, recovery goals and lifestyle.

“When I was brought onto Ron’s care team on March 26, he was being supported almost entirely by machines. He was receiving 100 percent of his oxygen from a ventilator, plus getting a lot of pressure support, but his oxygen was still unstable and dropping into dangerous territory,” said Skobel. “We let the machines do their jobs while we tried to keep him comfortable.”

Local Expert
The Expert: Steve Skobel, Nurse Practitioner 
His Expertise: Palliative Care
Steve Skobel is a Nurse Practitioner specializing in palliative care at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center. For more information about the doctors and services offered at Novant Health UVA Health System, visit novanthealthuva.org.

The variance of COVD-19 cases and their unpredictability meant that there was no precedent for how long Kunihiro could be in such critical condition. Days in the ICU turned into weeks, but all the while, his care team remained focused on seeing him through to a full recovery. It’s thanks to those efforts that Kunihiro was finally able to come off some machines on April 19. His endotracheal tube was removed and he was put on high-flow oxygen. Despite being very sick, delirious and incredibly weak, Kunihiro’s condition was beginning to improve.

“I never gave up or felt defeated by the virus,” said Kunihiro. “My doctors in the ICU were very interested in my recovery and my nurses were attentive to my needs. I have a greater appreciation now for how much our frontline healthcare workers put on the line for their patients.”

Moving on to Rehab

According to Skobel, patients who require ventilator support to survive the virus frequently need rehabilitation.

On April 30, Kunihiro tested negative for COVID-19 and was able to leave Prince William Medical Center to transition to a rehabilitation center for nine days. Kunihiro was breathing well, but after being immobile for so long, he needed to rebuild his musculoskeletal strength.

“We’re seeing a spectrum of needs for coronavirus patients entering rehabilitation centers,” said Skobel. “Some just need to rebuild physical strength – that’s the best-case scenario – but others work on respiratory healing. Those with irreversible lung damage may need to adjust to a new lifestyle with long-term support from a ventilator.”

Heading Home

After more than seven weeks away from home, Kunihiro’s doctors deemed him healthy enough to discharge on May 9.

Before his bout with coronavirus, Kunihiro loved golfing, and his everyday life involved a lot of cooking, shopping, doing chores around the house and exercising. Now, his “new normal” means taking things one day at a time and diligently doing rehabilitation exercises in hopes of soon being able to enjoy those activities once again. Fortunately, what he lacks in strength right now, is made up for in support and help from his loved ones.

“My greatest takeaway from this experience has been realizing the power of prayers. My faith and loving family and friends were there for me and continue to offer their love, support and help,” said Kunihiro. “I have a renewed motivation to live life to its fullest. I encourage others to never take things for granted and never give up the fight.”

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