After contracting malaria while serving in the Navy in the Philippines, he remembers being transferred to a large ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where he was read his last rites. Next he was taken to a utility room, dunked in ice water and given a combination of medicines that included quinine and hydroxychloroquine. He lived to tell the story.
Today, Jackson and his wife Rebecca have a new story to tell. Twenty-nine days after seeking care and treatment for respiratory symptoms at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, following 13 days in ICU (11 on a ventilator), Jackson, a COVID-19 survivor, was released to go home. On Wednesday morning, April 15, registered nurse Lori Thompson wheeled him down the hall to the tune of “Already Gone,” by the Eagles. “My departing song was not like something very soppy. Basically, that is me talking to the coronavirus,” he said.
After his night of chills, over the next few days, Jackson developed flu-like symptoms. He was in contact with his physician at Naval Hospital Beaufort who told him to stay home. He did not have the classic COVID-19 symptoms at that time: no coughing or shortness of breath. But he was running a high temperature—around 104. On March 17, he started coughing, and on March 18, the Jacksons called ahead and went to the ER at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.
Upon arrival, medical personnel came to the car, got Jackson into a wheelchair, and escorted him around to the side of the hospital where they had a tent set up. He was immediately admitted.
“At first, I wasn’t sure that he had coronavirus,” Rebecca said. “I knew he was very sick, and I felt relieved that he was finally in good hands—that he would be taken care of and get well.” It wasn’t until much later that night when Rebecca was informed that her husband had been tested for the virus. The results were not yet back, but he was presumed to be positive.
“That was a big jolt,” Rebecca admitted. “Everything became suddenly much more serious. He was just whisked away so quickly, and that was the last time I saw him for over a month.”
After his admission to the hospital and transfer to the ICU, Jackson called his wife the next morning to tell her they were going to intubate him. After frantically exchanging critical information Rebecca might need, he said, “I’m really scared.”
“I sent a couple more text messages after that, trying to encourage him and telling him everything was going to be okay, but he never responded,” Rebecca said. “I knew that he was (had?) gone under.”
Jackson was intubated at 10:37 that morning, and that evening, the doctor called. “He told me they would do everything they could to try to save him, but that he was gravely ill. I just didn’t know what to do other than start praying,” Rebecca said. “At this point, David was unaware. I had hope and I had support from family and friends all over the country. I put the word out in group text messages, and everyone reminded me what a fighter this man is. He cheated death many times. Even on 9/11, he was supposed to be at a meeting at the Pentagon that got canceled. God seems to have a reason to keep my husband alive.”
In spite of her faith, day after day, it became clear to Rebecca that her husband wasn’t getting better. “His lungs were being completely destroyed. It was just a waiting game,” she said. Drugs that were used in his treatment included hydroxychloroquine and Zithromax (Z-Pak), according to Rebecca. “I don’t know how they determined to go ahead and give him this. I thank God they did, because it seemed to turn things around.”
On day-nine came a glimmer of hope. The doctor was able to turn down the pressure on the oxygen, and Jackson’s temperature was finally starting to drop. “[The doctor] felt encouraged but couldn’t promise anything,” Rebecca said.
That was the same day, an angel appeared via Facetime. Registered nurse Candy Chappell took it upon herself to put her iPhone in a Ziplock bag and make the call to Rebecca from Jackson’s room. “He was out; he didn’t know I was there,” Rebecca said. “But I could see him, and I could see that he was alive. [Chappell] took me on a tour of the room and showed me all the machines and everything that was helping him stay alive and the numbers on the monitors.
“They are all wonderful there, but she went above and beyond for me. She knew how important that would be for me since I could not be there. I felt so reassured by her doing that. I think that’s the moment I really felt like it was going to be okay.”
Meanwhile, Rebecca took walks in the evening and continued to pray. “I would scream to the heavens, ‘Send my husband home.’ It was so horrible; I thought it just couldn’t possibly end this way for us.”
Miraculously, Jackson came off the ventilator on Monday, March 30. And thanks to Chappell, Rebecca got to be there virtually. “I didn’t try to stand up. I was just so shocked,” Rebecca said. “They had just taken out the tube. [Chappell] called his name, and he turned his head toward the phone, and his eyes opened wide. I said, ‘Hi, Baby.’ And he said it right back.”
“That was my first recollection,” Jackson said. “I remember looking at her face, and she was smiling. I said, ‘Hi, Baby. I love you.’”
Jackson said Rebecca was his hero. “My wife went through hell and back. She was my protector and my advocate while I was out in la-la land. I just woke up, and my fight began.”
Once free of the ventilator and stabilized, Jackson was transferred from ICU to the fifth-floor isolation unit, which was a step down in terms of critical care and the first step towards home.
“My first physical therapist came in—nice guy, wonderful man. He put the belt around me and sat me up in bed. I couldn’t sit. I kept falling over,” Jackson said. “When I was able, he stood me up and helped me up in front of a walker. I put my hands on the walker. He dropped the belt two inches, and I went right down. He had ahold of me. He sat me back down on the bed, and I fell over. So, I started doing in-bed exercises. He had to move everything for me because I couldn’t move it.”
But Jackson was determined to regain his strength and was later transferred to the acute inpatient rehabilitation unit—again in isolation. “By the time they moved me to the rehab floor, I was able to get myself out of bed, use the walker, and do exercises. By the time I left, I was completing all of the tasks that they would give me,” he said. “I had excellent physical and occupational therapy. These were young ladies, and they wouldn’t let you get off easy. If you needed to rest, you could rest, and they would check the pulse to see where you were. But, they never gave up on me.”
The hospital calls Jackson’s survival a “Co-Victory” because it truly took teamwork. “This is really important to me,” Jackson said, stating that the only reason he agreed to any press coverage was to call attention to the positive. “You turn on the TV. All you hear about is how many died, how many new cases. They never talk about those of us who lived. Those people in the ICU and the second-floor rehab saved my life. All the doctors, all the nurses—they call me a miracle. But I keep saying, ‘No, you’re the miracle. Without you, there’s no me.’”
“We both feel that way,” Rebecca said. “The nurses and doctors—especially the ICU experience … they were more than willing to hold my hand over the phone during the night. It was hard to sleep. Here I was at home at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I just wanted to find out how he was doing. They didn’t mind at all. We’re quite fortunate to have this acute care available.”
With an initial projected release date of Friday, April 17, Jackson had a loftier goal. “I wanted out. They kept talking about Friday, but I wanted to go home sooner. So, I really, really busted my tail in physical therapy and occupational therapy. They had a meeting and decided that I could go home on Wednesday.”
Jackson aced his final PT performance evaluation. “There was no way I was going to fail that! On the day that I left, my wife called and said, ‘That man has got to be out of the hospital at 11 o’clock.’ I looked up, and it was dead on 11 o’clock, and I could hear my wife out in the hallway.”
Jackson lost 40 pounds during his hospital stay. “Since I got home, my wife has helped me gain back five pounds with good homecooked meals. I don’t want to go back up 40 pounds, but I need to get stronger,” he said.
To that end, Jackson walks with the walker when Rebecca isn’t around. But with her at his side, he takes a few trips down the hall each day without the walker, he said. “It’s helping to make me stronger. It’s getting my balance back.”
In addition to the exceptional medical care he received, Jackson believes his faith in God and the many prayers sent out on his behalf contributed to his healing. “A good friend of mine got a prayer group going—people I’ve known for many years and people I never even heard of. My wife was praying; they were praying—her family, my family—people from Japan all the way to Beaufort and places north and south,” he said.
“Miracles do happen. Also, while I was on the ventilator, I became a grandfather for the first time,” Jackson added.
When he is back up to full strength, Jackson has been asked to return to the hospital for testing and research. Of course, he agreed. “There’s something between [God] and me. He keeps me around,” Jackson said. “I’m here for a reason. Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”