Tom Brancheau, who likes to swim 40 minutes a day, felt great July 10.
But on July 11, he didn’t feel so hot.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” the 71-year-old Port Charlotte man said. “I felt like I got hit by a Mack truck.”
He called his kids up North and they urged him to go to the hospital — now! He hesitated, but eventually relented.
“I went to Fawcett Memorial ER and they checked my oxygen level and sat me down on a gurney,” he said. “I don’t remember a thing after that for the next five weeks.”
Tom Brancheau had COVID-19. He thinks he got it volunteering to prepare meals. Nevertheless, it knocked him for a loop.
He was in a coma five weeks, and doctors prepared his wife for the worst.
“They told my wife (Regina), I might not make it,” he said.
Regina was scared. She couldn’t see her husband and the hospital was unable to give a lot of detail about his condition as he remained in a coma and on a ventilator. They asked permission to insert a feeding tube, which she agreed to.
“They asked if he had a living will,” Regina said. “They wanted to know if he wanted to be kept alive on a machine. I told them just do the best you can to take care of him. I was hysterical.”
She said kind nurses let her call and they put the phone to his ear, encouraging her to talk because they said “nine times out of 10 the person in the coma can hear your voice.”
“They told me to keep talking to him.
“At one point I yelled at him. I said ‘Don’t give up! I need you! I can’t do anything without you.’ And then I started crying.
“The nurse told me he blinked his eye. And a few days later he started opening his eyes. He was coming back to me. It was the most beautiful feeling.”
Tom was better but still paralyzed and unable to do anything for himself. He was moved to a rehab facility in Fort Myers that deals with COVID-19 patients and people with severe burns.
“I was there five weeks and they gave me different things to eat to see if I could swallow,” Tom said. “I was able to eat, but I still could not use my arms. The nurses had to move my head and rotate me every two hours. I got bed sores and still have a couple now.”
When he was able to partially use his left side and feed himself, he fought to be moved to a facility in Port Charlotte to be closer to Regina and, hopefully, get more therapy. It took some doing with COVID-19 restrictions and insurance involved, but he was relocated.
After a few weeks, however, he was only getting 15-minute therapy sessions a day.
“I told them I can do that at home.”
So, still unable to walk, he was sent home in a wheelchair.
“Regina (who also tested positive for COVID-19 but never had symptoms) turned out to be a great nurse.”
Tom says he’s about 80% now. He started driving two weeks ago and is thrilled he can go to the store. But his right arm is especially weak and he struggles with things. His goal is to some day get back in the pool of his Port Charlotte Village complex.
He looks back on his ordeal and said he has no earthly idea why he was lucky enough to survive.
“Other people who weren’t as sick as me didn’t make it,” he said of fellow coronavirus patients. “I guess it just wasn’t my time. God, and some good doctors at Fawcett, saved me. I know that. There were a lot of prayers.”
He said he doesn’t want to hear about people who call the virus a hoax or won’t wear a mask.
“If you see someone not wearing a mask, have them come talk to me,” he said. “I will tell them this is no joke. It can happen at any time, and a mask can save lives.
“I got a second chance. A lot of other people didn’t.”