Five children stood outside of Newman Regional Health, March 19, waving signs and chanting — loudly and persistently — with one simple message: “Free our Mimi!”
Their “Mimi” is Dodie Martin who was about to be discharged after a long stay in the hospital’s inpatient rehabilitation unit — and a near-fatal battle with COVID-19.
Martin, a 63-year-old registered nurse from Emporia, said she had gone to work at Holiday Resort feeling healthy on Nov. 22, 2020. By the afternoon, however, she had started feeling feverish. With a temperature of 102.9 degrees Fahrenheit, Martin said she was instructed to get tested for COVID-19.
The test was positive.
“I had a couple of days in there that I went to the hospital, to the ER,” Martin said. “I didn’t want to stay before I didn’t have insurance.”
A longtime employee at Holiday Resort, Martin had taken a job in Burlington. That job wasn’t a good fit so she went back to Holiday Resort, but she wasn’t eligible to sign up for the health insurance plan until December.
Martin, who already suffers from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, knew her condition was worsening. Though she declined admission to the hospital two times, by the third visit she was ready to stay.
“I stayed that day and I don’t remember much,” she said. “I remember them telling me that I had to go on the BiPap machine, and I was really very worried about that because I get claustrophobic, and then I don’t remember anything else. Then my family told me I was there a week, and then they transferred me to St. Francis Hospital in Wichita.”
Martin was transferred to Wichita on Dec. 7. She was sedated and intubated the next day. It would be more than a month before Martin was coherent again.
“It was very scary,” Kala Wagner, Martin’s daughter, said. “I will have to say when she first called and told us that she tested positive, my initial thought was, ‘Okay, well, that sucks. But she’ll get better.’ I mean, it’s my mom. I was like, ‘She’ll be down for a couple of weeks and it’ll be fine and everything will be okay.’”
Wagner is one of three children shared by Dodie and Rodger Martin. She described her mother as the matriarch of the family, the bond that holds everyone together.
“You don’t ever think it’s going to happen to you,” Wagner said. “It’s such a helpless feeling, not being able to be with family.”
Martin’s other daughter, Kelli Black, said she had been more concerned when her mother came down with the virus, but she never expected things to get as bad as they did.
“I think the hardest thing to do was to go [to Wichita] to get her stuff,” Black said. “We were there but we couldn’t go up to see her.”
Wagner said after a few days of medications, treatments and repositioning her mother from prone and supine positions, Martin showed little signs of improvement. Her doctors explained that Martin was suffering from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which was most likely caused by pneumonia and worsened by COVID-19 with no care or treatment.
“It was up to her body to heal itself with no way of predicting whether it would or not,” Wagner said. “They would continue to keep her on the ventilator to help give her body the time it needed to heal, but the prognosis — considering the condition of her lungs, her age and signs of no significant improvement — wasn’t good.”
Wagner said the family sent out prayer requests, and because their mother had touched so many lives, received a lot of support. Every improvement, even the smallest one, was celebrated.
But, after two weeks on the ventilator, Martin’s respiratory condition was too critical to extubate. A few days before Christmas, Wagner said the family was called down to discuss placing their mother on comfort care.
Then on Dec. 22, Martin showed clear signs that she was still fighting. By Christmas Eve, she was moved from the COVID unit to a regular ICU room and her family was able to visit daily.
Although she still needed ventilator support, doctors decided she was strong enough for a tracheotomy. The trach was placed on Dec. 29 and ventilator support was decreased daily until Jan. 12 when she was completely off of the ventilator for good.
Two days later, on Jan. 14, Martin would be transferred back to Newman Regional Health via ambulance to the inpatient rehabilitation unit. When she arrived, she could only move her thumbs.
Overcoming the odds
“She was on high-flow oxygen — much more than normal — when she got here,” said Sheila Raaf, rehabilitation director at Newman Regional Health. “She hadn’t eaten, moved or had anything to drink in almost two months.”
In fact, Raaf said Martin is the first COVID patient to return to Newman Regional Health after being put on a ventilator.
Raaf said Martin had a speaking valve in her trach, so she could talk, but she needed to strengthen her swallowing muscles so she could drink thicker liquids and eat solid foods.
Wagner said her mother’s second goal — after working on swallowing techniques — was to enjoy an order of Sonic onion rings and Diet Coke.
“She reached that goal at the end of January and transitioned to a regular diet not long after,” she said.
Martin continued working on physical strengthening, through occupational and physical therapy. Raaf said NRH therapists had a goal to get the RN strong enough to send home in a wheelchair.
Martin has successfully relearned how to walk with the aide of a walker, can perform basic care skills such as brushing her teeth, bathing and using the bathroom, and regained strength she lost during the time she was intubated.
“We honestly thought she would be wheelchair-bound the rest of her life,” Raaf said, her voice cracking. “She’s walking 50-feet now. She’s exceeded all of her goals.”
For Martin, exceeding expectations is just part of her nature. She likes to surprise people and she has things to do. A few important things? Celebrating her husband’s 70th birthday on Sunday, and the couple’s upcoming 46th wedding anniversary in April.
Originally, Martin tried to talk Dr. Alana Longwell, the medical director for NRH’s inpatient rehab and hospitalist program, into discharging her on March 12. No luck.
“They told me Dr. Longwell would like for you to stay through March 30 or 31,” Martin said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m not.’”
The two were able to cut a deal. If Martin was up to it, she’d leave March 19. Otherwise, she would stay until March 26.
On March 19, Martin and her family got the reunion they had been dreaming about for months. Although they had been able to have a short, 30-minute porch visit in February and FaceTime calls, it just hadn’t been enough.
Tears flowed freely as Martin embraced her children and grandchildren, surrounded by many of the nurses and first responders that cared for her during her time at the hospital.
The chant, Wagner said, was an offhand comment she said jokingly while the children made their signs for their beloved grandmother. Their Mimi.
“She’s our matriarch,” Wagner said. “She holds us together.”
One of the grandkids, knowing she was coming home for good, kept hugging and kissing his Mimi and said, “Now I can hug you anytime I want.”
For Martin, who didn’t know how close she came to death until recently, the experience has brought her closer to the people she loves. And it’s reminded her that’s she’s not quite finished yet.
When Martin’s strong enough, she plans to return to her job at Holiday Resort.
“I have a new appreciation for life,” she said. “I enjoy taking care of people and that’s what I want to do.”