Destin’s Hal Aiken continues his recovery from the affects of COVID-19
After being diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-March, a long hospital stay, and even a terminal diagnosis, Hal Aiken has finally got some “good news” and just in time for Father’s Day.
“The mental stress when you’re basically told you’re terminal is unreal. That’s a tough one to swallow. But we are very blessed people,” said Hal who lives in the heart of Destin with his wife of 45 years, June.
On March 5, Hal, now 67, experienced his first symptom, a hacky cough, and was later admitted to the hospital where he was diagnosed with COVID-19. After much prayer and medication, he was released after more than a week in the hospital and sent home around the end of March.
Hal, who lost 25 pounds and was reduced to using a walker and being on oxygen, was extremely weak due to the bi-lateral viral pneumonia COVID-19 left him with. However, until he tested negative for COVID-19 he couldn’t get in to see a pulmonologist.
On April 21 and 25 he tested negative and was able to get in to the pulmonologist, only to get more bad news.
“The viral pneumonia that ravaged me was just incredibly bad and that made my (CT) scan look a heck of a lot worse than they actually were,” Hal said. “He basically told June and I that I was terminal. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
The doctor indicated Hal had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
“This has really changed me,” Hal said. “It’s very very humbling to go through what I’ve been through and it teaches you a great appreciation of what a wonderful work God can do, if you turn it all over to him and that’s basically what June and I have had to do.
“It’s baby steps, and as (God) says it’s all going to be on my time,” he added.
STEPS TO GOOD NEWS
His first X-ray showed scarring on his lungs and fibrosis, which is a progressive disease.
He then underwent a battery of blood test.
“They sucked about five or six vials out,” Aiken said. The blood work showed he also had rheumatoid arthritis, which can also attack the lungs.
“So I kind of got a triple whammy,” he said.
After the CT scan and blood work, the doctor came up with a treatment plan.
“Of course I was all for it ... somebody doing something,” he said, noting it was the first treatment of any kind since the hospital.
The doctor put Hal on a high dose of steroids and another medication. The downside to the medications was they suppressed his immune system and left him susceptible to anything out there.
After two weeks on the medication, he went back last Wednesday for a chest X-ray and the doctor on Thursday.
“Low and behold, my lungs had almost twice the black space in them, which is air. The report came back looking a whole heck of a lot better than the first one. It said moderate fibrosis. I like that a whole lot better than the first one,” he said. “June 4th was the first time we got any good news.
“So gradually ... baby steps and day by day I’m getting better even though some days are like a set back,” he added.
HERE AND NOW
After not being able to do for himself for months, Hal is getting out and about.
“I'm using the old theory of pushing myself a little bit,” he said.
Today he’s driving, working a little bit and going without his oxygen most of the time. If he feels himself getting winded, he comes home, gets on the couch for 30 or 40 minutes and puts on the oxygen.
“I kind of have to go on my gut as to how I feel ... how I approach every day,” Hal said.
Due to COVID-19, Aiken lost 25 pounds. Earlier this week he got on the scales and had gained two pounds.
“I know two pounds doesn’t sound like much but I feel like dancing a jig about it,” he said. “June has just taken care of me ... been there for everything.”
As for the walker, Hal said he gave that thing the boot about two months ago after physical therapy and learning what exercises to do.
“I pushed it to get independent so June wouldn’t have to be doing all the stuff. It’s just not my nature to lay around,” he said.
On June 11, Hal went back to the doctor and they have started to wean him off the steroids.
He said the first three days he noticed his breathing was more labored than it had been.
“June kept saying ’Hal give your body time to adjust,” he said.
Hal goes back next week for another chest X-ray.
On July 14 he has an appointment with the pulmonary department at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Shands is known for lung transplants although Aiken’s doctor doesn’t think he will require one.
“That’s what we are praying for. If God will just get me back to where I was when I got hit with this. That’s all we ask,” Hal said.
In addition to driving and getting out, Hal is picking the guitar back up and getting his “chops” back up.
Prior to COVID-19, Hal was playing four-hour gigs and singing upwards of 45 songs. A week later COVID hit and he couldn’t breath. Now he’s hoping to make his way back.
“That’s my focus for the rest of my life,” he said, noting his songwriting and performing here and there.
WORDS OF ADVICE
Going through this journey, the virus has taught Hal a lot.
“I’m not a man of great patience, but God has taught me a lot of patience through this ordeal,” he said.
Hal said his advice for folks is like a double-edge sword. He’s all for opening up America and getting people back to work because people need an income in order to live.
But on the flip side, he said people need to use common sense in knowing what kind of environment they are going into and take adequate protection.
“A lot people misconstrue protection. Wearing a mask is not necessarily just for you, but it’s respect for other people, ” he said.
Hal said he and his wife June wear a mask whenever they venture out. Thus far they have been out to eat twice.
“My advice would be to use your common sense about yourself and your fellow man,” he said.
Although Hal was hit hard with the COVID-19, his wife June tested positive for the virus as well, but fared way better.
June experienced a few symptoms like Hal early on, but thankfully after medication, she was better in about two days. Her biggest issue were headaches.
"I had a headache across my eyes for about two weeks,“ she said.
However, she wasn’t sure if the headache was from the coronavirus or stress from not being able to see Hal when he was in isolation in the hospital.
The couple is also thankful for the “outpouring of love” from the community. The couple said they have received countless cards and letters and people delivering food.
“They’ve all just been wonderful,” June said.
Hal noted his fishing buddies have been great to drop off fish, which is a great protein for him to eat.
“We’ve had so many wonderful gestures, so much love and prayer ... lots of prayer,” June said.
They both are thankful for their church, Immanuel Anglican, and all that have called and checked on them.
“People are still checking on us. It’s just been great. We’ve had a lot of support,” June said.
And support has not just come from the community but from family.
“We have special circumstance living next door like we have for the last 19 years,” said their daughter Melissa. "We work as a team, and (Hal) is our key player, and he went down, hard.“
While her dad has been sick, Melissa has pitched in wherever needed from running errands to yard work and prayers.
“He’s always supported me, so it was my turn to pay it forward. And still is,” she said.
With Father’s Day on Sunday, Melissa said they don’t have any official plans, but it will be a big weekend. Friday was her dog’s 14th birthday, June’s birthday is Saturday and Sunday is Father’s Day.
“So we’ve got a lot to celebrate. Hopefully, we’ll go get some fresh air and share some good meals,” Melissa said.
Looking back, Melissa said her dad was the last one they expected to catch the virus.
“It was just bizarre,” she said, noting he is usually the one to take care of her and her mother. “He was the last man I expected to be down. And the isolation of not being able to see him and support him though that (was hard).
“As far as father’s go, he’s been one of the best for sure,” she added. “He’s always been there for me ... a true champion to my life in all my endeavors that I’ve done.”
Melissa has a lot of fond memories of time spent with her dad, whether it be in the garden, fishing or listening to his music.
“I wanted to be with my dad when he was in the garden. Wherever he was, I kind of wanted to be there,” she said.
And watching her dad play music makes her feel at home.
On Feb. 28, about five days before his first symptom, Hal played a gig at the Funky Blues Shack.
“I knew it was a special night but I didn’t know how special at the time,” Melissa said. “We’re looking forward to getting back to celebrate. We want to see him back on stage doing what he loves to do.”