8LAKELAND - It started with a sinus headache, runny nose and chills on Dec. 4. Just days later, Jerrold Lemko would be diagnosed with COVID-19, and by Dec. 17 he would be transferred to Edmonton where he battled what he describes as a "beast of a sickness."
After experiencing those first symptoms, Lemko, who is a councillor with the Town of Vegreville and just celebrated his 65th birthday this fall, decided to get tested. Lemko's wife had been tested prior and was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 5. Lemko himself was tested on Dec. 7 and received his results on Dec. 10.
Lemko admits he didn't really know what to make of the positive diagnosis, "as we had been very diligent with social distancing, washing and wearing our masks. You never know I guess."
After his positive result, Lemko was in regular contact with his doctor in Vegreville. On Dec. 17, Lemko got a call from his doctor asking how he was doing.
"I actually barely could talk on the phone. He had me come to emergency immediately . . . They immediately put me on oxygen because my breathing wasn’t good," recalls Lemko. After running chest x-rays and blood work, his doctor decided things weren't well.
"My Doctor called the Royal Alex and arrangements were made to transfer me to Edmonton via ambulance. I got to the Royal Alex Emergency department around midnight. . . 4:30 in the morning I was transferred into the internal medicine department."
Things were happening so fast Lemko couldn’t even comprehend what was going on. He had also grown very weak.
"I was fortunate enough to have my cell phone and charger with me, which was my only connection to family and friends."
The next morning, things got worse for Lemko. An ICU doctor paid him a visit and told Lemko he was very sick.
"No sugar coating here. He told me to prepare, and if things don't improve what my death would be like," recalls Lemko, in a post on social media that he decided to write, as a way to warn others of the seriousness of the virus,
"I was moved to ICU shortly thereafter. Now, the process gets crazy."
He had about five IV lines inserted into his arms to fill him full of steroids, nourishment, fluids, antibiotics "and all other things in between."
He had a pressurized line inserted into his arterial vein so doctors could monitor blood pressure and draw blood on demand. Lemko was hooked up to a variety of machines, monitoring his heart, his oxygen levels, and more.
He describes having a "never ending headache" and describes how changes were happening around him, all the time, without a moments notice.
"The emotional journey is awful."
The only quiet time Lemko had was while hospital staff cleaned up and prepared for the next patient.
"Alarms are ringing all around you. If not yours, then your neighbour's. . . After five days of battling in the ICU I was fortunately able to get the help I needed," says Lemko. "After that, I was being transferred to the COVID ward on the fifth floor for follow up treatment. In a room with three other fellows fighting their own COVID fight."
It was "slow and steady" progress for Lemko in this ward. He was encouraged to eat, but it was tough since he didn't have any sense of taste.
He commended the exceptional staff who helped care for him - from doctors, to the respiratory team, physio therapists, and others. "I want to say that this team of medical professionals are the best people in the world. Under such trying circumstances, staff shortages, long hours, the battles with all the emotions and all in between - they are what make the difference. These people saved my life."
Going from walking five kilometres and biking 20 kilometres a day, "to moving around with a walker dragging an oxygen line around tells you how debilitating this sickness is," says Lemko, who also credits his faith in God to saving his life.
Lemko was told that it was a miracle he was able to go home.
When asked if his outlook on the pandemic was changed by his experience, Lemko says, "not at all."
"I always believed that this was a very serious pandemic that many people have taken for granted."
Along with being a town councillor, Lemko is an active member of the community in Vegreville and served as fire chief in the community for a number of years.