PNW man’s COVID journey: skeptic to survivor to advocate
Howard Breidenbach was in the fast lane to retirement this summer. The 47-year-old man had worked hard to build a trucking company, a passion that defined his adulthood, he said. Breidenbach estimated he’d be able to call it career and drive off into the sunset within five years. The lingering COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t shake Breidenbach from his goals, nor his way of life – until the virus nearly ripped everything away.
Fast-forward to October, when Breidenbach stood slowly at University of Washington Medical Center – Montlake. About 100 days had passed since Breidenbach began to feel sick back in his hometown of Myrtle Creek, a southern Oregon community of less than 4,000 people.
“It wasn't just a flu. It wasn't, but I thought it was,” Breidenbach said as he gingerly settled into a bedside chair, hands slightly trembling. “It was no conspiracy. COVID's a killer.”
The devoutly religious and unvaccinated man had evaded the virus throughout the pandemic's initial three waves. He chose to forgo free vaccinations this past spring at his local pharmacy, thinking that vaccines were made public too quickly and without ample testing. Beyond that, his business required long hours of attention and effort, and he felt healthy as he worked away.
Now he has a different perspective.
“When I realized what had happened, when I realized where I was, I was scared to death.”
Breidenbach remembered being admitted to a hospital in Roseburg, about 20 minutes north of Myrtle Creek, in late July. He remembered an overwhelmed but committed doctor there, searching desperately for an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine – a type of respirator that would serve as an artificial lung for Breidenbach’s rapidly failing body.
Breidenbach does not remember his July 29 trip to Seattle – one of the only places in the region with an ECMO machine available – as his battle with the virus was peaking and the future seemed to be slipping from his reach.
“If anybody wants to know if hell really exists, sit down in that room down there with no voice,” Breidenbach said. “They wanted me to write, but I couldn't remember how to spell. They wanted me to identify myself, but I couldn't remember.”
Breidenbach believed he was lying in his deathbed. “I made a conscious effort to come through and not give in. I was scared to go to sleep because I didn't want to die, so I held myself awake as much as I could.”
Out of grim lows grew small but promising steps of progress. His body slowly regained the ability to breathe on its own. He labored through physical therapy sessions as autumn drew nearer. He found comradery and encouragement through his encounters with UW Medicine nurses, doctors, chaplains, and specialists.
Breidenbach reveled in his care team’s commitment to embrace his personality and to challenge him to build on success. They wheeled him onto a patio for fresh air after he pushed through a particularly challenging two-week stretch of treatment.
Another constant at Breidenbach’s bedside was his wife, Tonja. She shares a background in trucking, which helped as she logged trips up and down Interstate 5, balancing responsibilities at home while supporting her recovering husband.
On an autumn morning, Tonja’s settled Breidenbach into his wheelchair for the road trip home. Althought uncertainty lingers about how quickly he might be back at full strength, he is mindful of what got him through this trauma so far.
“I owe several people my thanks, my gratitude,” Breidenbach said Oct. 28 as he was leaving the hospital's intensive care unit. “Hundreds of doctors and nurses and staff, people that I don't remember. They sat beside me, night and day.”
As he exchanged goodbyes with caregivers, Breidenbach promised a new mission is beginning, as an advocate for vaccination.
“I am going to tell them all that they need to be vaccinated,” he said. “Every person I see, I'm going to share my story.”
- Vaccines.gov, created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), can help you find a location to receive a COVID-19 vaccination anywhere in the U.S.
– Written by Zach Garcia