“WHAT A YEAR this has been,” Doug Benge said, echoing what many of us have felt in 2020. But Doug isn’t just glad 2020 is over. He is glad he survived it.
When he celebrated his birthday in November, Doug thanked his Facebook friends for their birthday wishes. He also thanked them for their concerns and prayers during the two long weeks he was hospitalized with the coronavirus.
“What a year this has been,” he reflected, “but [this is] a birthday I’m glad I got to celebrate.”
It has, without question, been a tough year. Doug was laid off last spring after working the last 12 as a pumper at Cimarex. Fortunately—though he didn’t realize how much so at the time—his severance package included 10 months of health insurance benefits.
Doug had always considered himself a healthy guy. Never caught a cold, never had the flu, never missed work. But he also knew the job had taken its toll. “I had some body parts, some joints that were wearing out, just from the work I’ve done,” he said.
About a month before the layoffs were announced, he had undergone shoulder surgery, and already met his deductible. As it turns out, that was a real blessing, given the $150,000 bill he received following his 15-day stint in Liberal’s Southwest Medical Center—12 of those spent fighting for life in the intensive care unit.
DOUG’S BATTLE BEGAN here in Canadian on Oct. 9, when he first tested positive for COVID-19. What started as just a terrible headache worsened over the next five days, to the point that he woke his wife, Karlyn, in the middle of the night, saying, “You’ve got to take me to the emergency room. I’ve got to get a shot for this headache.”
It was just before midnight when they arrived at Hemphill County Hospital. Dr. Gary Frederick was on call. “The first thing, they took my blood pressure, my temperature, and my oxygen level, which was down to 69 percent,” Doug said. “By that time, I was already out of it.”
Doug’s oxygen saturation level was so low that Dr. Frederick immediately began searching for an acute care hospital that had an empty bed—no small feat in the age of COVID. He located one, finally, in Liberal, Kansas.
Doug doesn’t remember much about the trip in the ambulance. “I remember coming into Liberal,” he said. “It seemed like time was just really crawling. All I could see was the ceiling and a clock on the wall.”
He also remembers that—because he had COVID—Karlyn wasn’t allowed to come with him.
“They wouldn’t let her in,” he said, the sting of that moment still clear. “They wouldn’t let Karlyn in.”
His first few days in the hospital were a blur. Doug didn’t really know what day it was, or how much time had passed. “I didn’t have a dime in my pocket. I didn’t have my glasses. I didn’t have my cellphone,” he said. “I mainly just got messed up on my days. Those days just lasted longer than I thought.”
Doug had developed pneumonia in conjunction with the coronavirus. The top priority in his treatment was to enable him to breath. Doug was immediately placed on a CPAP machine that forced air into his lungs, given plasma via an IV tube, and treated with antibiotics and steroids.
“From midnight to daylight, all these people were coming in, doing chest X-rays and blood work,” he remembered. “The doctors and nurses would get together and get their game plan, and come by about 10 or 11 every morning. I was really impressed. It seems like they had it all down, and what they were doing was sure working.”
At some point, though, there was talk of having to intubate Doug—often one of the final measures taken as a COVID patient struggles increasingly to breathe.
Doug remembered one very difficult night in his two-week hospital stay. “I have always had a positive attitude,” he said, “but there was one really bad emotional night up there. It just hit me all at once. I was crying. I was by myself and had nobody to talk to. The kids were texting me, and every time I read something, I just cried.”
“I was thinking of Karlyn, thinking I wish this was paid off, and stuff like that,” he said. “But the next morning, that was gone. I never had it again.”
“It was the good Lord that brought me out of it,” he said. “Good doctors. Good treatments. But it was His will. ‘You’re not done yet.’”
That, he said, is when he decided: “I’m gonna whip this.”
“Once I started feeling better,” Doug said, “I never had a setback.”
Looking back on his ordeal, Doug remembered something else about that time in the hospital. “You could tell those nurses were sure getting tired and wore out,” he said. “The stress of it, and not knowing.”
BEFORE HE CONTRACTED the virus, Doug said he and Karlyn didn’t shut themselves in their house, but they didn’t go out a lot, either.
While Doug is unsure how he was exposed, he tested positive a few days after a weekend men’s conference held here in Canadian. “That was really the only time I was around people I normally wasn’t,” he said. “People from Oklahoma, Vernon, Amarillo, and Childress came. I don’t know if it was somebody there.”
“I do know people there that did come down with it,” he said.
One of the main speakers—a preacher from a church in Tulsa—became very ill with the coronavirus following the conference, and had only begun to recover last month.
“When I came down with it,” Doug said, “I sure wasn’t mad. I’m not upset if somebody had it there and I caught it. What worries me is how many people did I expose… was there one, or 10, or 20? That bothers me more. You just don’t know.”
In fact, Doug credits his church’s Bible study group—a group of six or seven couples—with having helped him recover. “They were so good about texting stuff: encouragement, prayers, checking on Karlyn,” he said. “All them ornery, old high school buddies of mine, checking on me.”
It was those same friends who just showed up, unbidden, when a winter storm delivered freezing temperatures and layers of ice that coated the countryside and caused crippling power outages to much of this area. Doug was still fighting for life in that Kansas hospital, and Karlyn was alone at home with cattle to care for.
“She had all our animals and was out here by herself,” Doug said. “She couldn’t even get the gates open. But them ol’ buddies of mine just showed up. They were out there feeding the cows and stuff, without even being asked.”
“It sure makes you feel good that you belong to a community as thoughtful and kind,” he said. “We weren’t in it alone. It lets me know how good people are.”
TODAY, DOUG IS just grateful for having been lucky enough to survive. After first being released, he had strange residual symptoms. “Weird stuff,” Doug said. “The bottom of my feet seemed numb, and it was weird walking. My hands and wrists felt like they had needles poking in them. I couldn’t sleep at night because of it. I would start shaking real bad if I picked up a cup or something.”
About two weeks later, he said, he was symptom-free.
“I’m not scared of getting it again,” he said. “But if we’re out, I sure mask up. I don’t think we’re at risk of giving it to anybody.”
“I don’t think there’s any way you can be completely safe and not put yourself in a position to be exposed to it, unless you lock yourself up in your house and never get out,” Doug admits. “I’m not going to live my life scared of going out and seeing people. I just think you’ve got to believe, if it does affect you, you will work hard at overcoming it. With the good Lord’s help, you will survive.”
“I always thought I was invincible,” said Doug. “I thought I could live through anything. And I guess I did live through it.”
“I sure wasn’t wanting to leave this world yet.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The third and final part of Three Lives: Living and Dying with Covid, will be published in next week’s edition of The Record. It will feature our conversation with Jenny Wilburn Frazier, whose father, Bob Wilburn, died last month from COVID-19.