ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Barbara Noll remembers well the February day her friend Deanna Hair sat patiently, keeping her company during her first daylong chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor.
“You can walk around or something,” Noll told her friend. “Get a snack.”
“Oh no, I’m fine here,” replied Hair, settling in with her book and staying close, chatting with nurses until late in the afternoon.
It was a long day. But Hair and Noll now really know the meaning of a long hospital stay. Six weeks later, Hair came back to Michigan Medicine, this time herself fighting a new disease upending the world.
Hair finally left there Thursday, after 196 days of hospitalization for COVID-19.
“My life is forever changed because of this experience," Hair said in a statement to USA TODAY, "physically, mentally and emotionally.”
The 67-year-old Ann Arbor resident and her husband began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms after a trip to Palm Springs, California. Both tested positive on March 31. While her husband's symptoms were mild, Hair developed a fever and cough, and four days later began vomiting.
On April 3, she was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with ischemic colitis, also known as dead gut, caused by reduced blood flow to her large intestine from COVID-19.
Doctors prepared Hair for emergency surgery the following day.
Diane Flucht, a friend of Hair's for more than 15 years was shocked. She'd seen her four days earlier on their Zoom book club call, the same day Hair tested positive.
“We were all very surprised that we had seen her at book club and then got the call on April 4th,” Flucht said. “I thought it was going to take a miracle for my friend to survive.”
Dr. Philip Choi, a pulmonologist on Hair’s team at Michigan Medicine, said surgeons had to remove part of her colon. After surgery, she was totally dependent on a ventilator for months as her body struggled to fight off multiple infections and complications brought on by the complex surgery and her weakened immune system.
Strict COVID-19 protocols at the beginning of the pandemic prohibited Hair's family, including her husband, Ken, and three daughters to see her during the most difficult months of her hospitalization in the COVID-19 intensive care unit.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for my mom and myself,” said daughter Jennifer Hair. “I don’t know how much people realize how (COVID-19) affects people and their families and their loved ones.”
Hospital staff did their best to keep the family in touch through FaceTime and phone calls. Although Hair wasn’t very responsive, her family spoke to her and shared updates with other loved ones.
Hair's condition worsened, with new problems arising each day in a new organ. While hospitalized, she had infections in her chest and belly, pneumonia in her lungs, and became septic when her kidneys started to fail, Choi said.
Her family was called into the hospital three times to say goodbye, each time doctors fearing she was at the end of her life.
“And then she would bounce back,” Flucht said. “Her friends had a little joke that Dee just wanted to see her family.”
In June, two months after Hair was admitted to the hospital, she tested negative for COVID-19 twice. She was moved to the regular ICU and by this time, the hospital had loosened visitor restrictions and one family member a day was able to visit.
Hair finally began getting better. Her kidneys started to heal, Choi said, and she no longer needed dialysis. She left the ICU to go to the main hospital, where her lungs and mental status began to gradually improve.
Hair said thoughts, prayers and positive energy from her friends and family motivated her to keep fighting for her life.
“She is very family-oriented and has strong family support,” Choi said. “I can see why her family was so invested in her care because she was so invested in her family as well.”
Hair began rehabilitation in September. She still required ventilation at night but could breathe on her own throughout the day. Doctors watched as she gradually became stronger.
When they finally decided Hair could continue her rehabilitation at home, Flucht cried.
“After seeing your friend for months in hospital gowns (from pictures), it’s so wonderful to see her in real clothes again," she said. “It makes you realize how we just take for granted that our friends are always going to be there."
Hair was wheeled out of the hospital Thursday morning. She was greeted by friends and family, including her grandchildren, donning masks and holding posters displaying colorful messages of love. Many held back tears.
A mask covered Hair's mouth, but her eyes smiled as she waved to those gathered to usher her departure home. Finally arriving at the car, her husband helped her inside, gave her a long embrace and whispered, "You made it."
Although Hair won the initial battle against COVID-19, she still has a long road ahead of her, Choi said. One of the biggest challenges is regaining her strength after 196 days of hospitalization.
Doctors say it's the longest a COVID-19 patient has been hospitalized at Michigan Medicine, surpassing an Indiana man who battled the virus for 115 days across three different hospitals.
She's far from her old self, who loved to read, spend time with her grandchildren and travel with her husband to places like China, Australia and Europe. At home, Hair will require a walker and ventilation at night. But friends say her recovery is a miracle and doctors are inspired by her "fighting spirit."
Hair credited those who rallied around her.
“I pray for those patients that don’t have the strong group of advocates that I have had, I would not be here today without them,” Hair said. “If any lesson learned from my fight for my life is that COVID is real, take precautions seriously and to be safe.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Michigan woman beats coronavirus after 196 days in hospital