To death’s door and back

Doctors, medical staff, family, church community—all play a role in Vic Winter’s continuing recovery from COVID-19

May 20, 2020 | People | Volume 24 Issue 11
Zach Charbonneau | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Leamington, Ont.
Vic Winter is back at home with a new outlook and a new beard. He says he is keeping it. (Photo by Marilyn Winter)

Vic Winter was admitted to hospital in Leamington on March 20. In short order his wife Marilyn was sent home while he was sent to the intensive-care unit at the Windsor Regional Hospital, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed unconscious on a ventilator to help him breathe as he fought for his life. He wouldn’t see his wife again for six weeks.

There was nothing Marilyn could do but fight as well. She was fighting against the fear of worst-case scenarios while navigating the fast-changing landscape of physical distancing regulations, with every instinct driving her to be by her husband’s side in his suffering.

Support came from all over. Their children were by their mother’s side as fast as they could be, isolating with her at home. The Leamington United Mennonite Church community that Vic had pastored from 2010 to 2018, when he retired, came together to hold a parking-lot prayer vigil. 

Marilyn spent her days viewing Vic through an iPad and sending updates on his condition to a list of email contacts. It worsened before improvements were visible. When his heart stopped, and his body began to shake, doctors prescribed paralytic medication, forcing his body to rest while all his energy went to fight COVID-19.

Prayers came in from all over the world in support of the Winters, and their neighbour Bill Doerksen, known for his annual Christmas display, turned on the lights every night in vigil. 

Support also came from the medical staff in Windsor caring for Vic, who was one of the earliest cases of COVID-19. “I was largely being experimented on,” he says. On April 29, he was discharged from hospital flanked by clapping and cheering medical staff. Says Vic, “The hospital staff were jubilant when I recovered. One nurse told me, ‘We needed this as much as you.’ ”

‘The entire world had changed’

Vic is still not 100 percent. “I am weak like a baby” and “walking is a little wobbly,” he says over the phone.

He was prepared for a slow recovery. His doctor told him that it would take about three days for every one lying in the intensive-care unit to get his body back to what it was before. But Vic is confident it will all come back because he has got Marilyn as his new physiotherapist. “I took 50 pages of notes from the doctors on how to get him well,” she says. 

Amnesia is one of the ways the body deals with trauma, and it’s a hurdle for Vic to get over, as he only recalls “brief snippets” of his story. “Back in March, I was a little bit ill,” he says. “I felt very cold and was shaky. We thought it was a seasonal flu. . . . And that’s the last thing I remember between then and six weeks later.”

He woke up to a world of physical distancing, isolation and quarantines. “I did a lot of crying in the hospital when I found out what was happening,” he says. “I woke up and the entire world had changed.”

And although things are looking much better for Vic, he is quick to offer sound and sobering wisdom: “This caught me unawares,” he says. “This virus snuck up on me and nearly killed me. . . . To fight this thing off, . . . you’ll need your whole body and then a little bit more.”

“There is a sense of presence that I felt while I was gone,” he says of his ordeal. “I knew subconsciously I was close to the edge and I felt remarkably calm. I had accepted the option of death, but I was happy to come back. I felt a certain comfort, as if I was in God’s presence. And to know that there is an entire community of people holding you up in faith is quite powerful. I knew that I had been carried through this.”

“The precautions that have been put in place are excellent,” he says of governmental regulations on physical distancing and self-isolation. “I have great worries about the loosening of the regulations. The second wave is going to be worse than the first,” he predicts.

Besides his pastorate in Leamington, Vic served as principal of UMEI Christian High School in Leamington from 2000 to 2010, and he was also a lay preacher.

Vic Winter is back at home with a new outlook and a new beard. He says he is keeping it. (Photo by Marilyn Winter)

Vic and Marilyn Winter wave as 130 cars filled with well-wishers pass by their house to welcome his return after a lengthy hospitalization for COVID-19. (Photo by Zach Charbonneau)

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Thanks so much for this deeply moving article of someone who survived COVID 19 with courage & wisdom which will surely be inspirational to everyone who reads it.

Thank you so much for sharing this. It is important for people to hear your story, both of your deeply personal experience and of your recovery. And to know that you felt held and supported. We need to remember that it can happen to any one of us. Be well and bee blessed for you are that.

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