It has been about six months since Fred Reyes was diagnosed with COVID-19, and while he continues to recover, he and his wife, Sharon, are supporting others who are going through experiences similar to theirs.
This is a very difficult holiday season for many, and while it’s easy for some to focus on the positives, everyone’s experiences this year have been different. Fred and Sharon Reyes describe COVID-19 as a tornado that runs down a street, causing different degrees of damage to each house. While they are grateful for recovery, the continued threat of the virus to the community is not lost on them.
“I think it’s a miracle that I’m alive, so I’m thankful for that, but … even as of yesterday, this week, people are dying that we know, that we have been praying for and walking with,” Fred said.
Fred, who is the senior director of camps and recreation at Deer Run Camps & Retreats in Thompson’s Station, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in May. He struggled with the virus at home for over a week before Sharon drove him to the emergency room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. From there, he went to the intensive care unit, where he endured septic shock, heart failure, was put on a ventilator, had a tracheostomy and was put on oxygen and a feeding tube. Then, after making some recovery, he came down with pneumonia.
In all, Fred spent 84 days in the hospital — 66 days in the ICU and almost three weeks in rehab. The first five weeks of that hospital stay was in complete isolation from his family. Sharon was not allowed to see her husband until July 8.
“I was the very first person to come on the COVID floor, the very first family member,” Sharon said. “I came on the floor. The nurses didn’t even know that the visitation policy had changed.”
Sharon watched her husband through a glass window, standing outside his room. She communicated with him by writing or via phone. Fred was unable to talk much of the time, but he could sometimes write back to her on a white board. Sharon said that Fred described July 8 as the day he “felt like hope walked in the door.”
“When you’re in the ICU fighting for your life, you kind of lose touch with reality and you don’t really know if you’re ever going to see your family again or not. So, I think the day that I showed up, it made Fred realize that he needed to fight a little bit harder to get home to his family,” Sharon said, expressing her thankfulness that Vanderbilt changed its visitation policy, which is still in place today.
Fred said that his memory of his time in the hospital is spotty, particularly when it comes to the earlier days. Sharon was able to help him piece some of the timeline together later. Throughout Fred’s hospital stay, Sharon posted daily updates on her “Prayer Army for Fred Reyes” Facebook page. People from all over, not just their local community, showed their support as Fred fought the virus.
“We have a stack of maybe a couple hundred cards that people sent in the mail, and everybody that we didn’t know would start their card off the same way: ‘You don’t know me. We’ve never met, but I’ve been praying for you all summer,’” Sharon said. “I think that was so incredible for us, to see that people cared about us even without knowing who we were and that they would go to such lengths to pray for us and pray for Fred’s healing. So, we will always be indebted to others for that.”
Fred came home from the hospital on Aug. 28. He still goes to therapy for neuropathy in his right leg and foot. But as he continues to recover, he and Sharon are offering the same support to others as the community offered them when Fred was in the hospital.
“We are using our pain and our suffering to help others, and that, to me, is the biggest thing that has come out of that — the relationships and the people that God has brought into our lives because of this virus,” Sharon said.
She has changed the name of her Facebook page for Fred to “Prayer Army for Covid Patients.” It is now used every day by people asking for and offering prayers, support and advice as they or their loved ones fight the virus.
Additionally, Sharon has partnered with the CIBS Center at Vanderbilt to launch a COVID-19 ICU family support group, which gathers via Zoom at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays. Those interested in joining can contact Sharon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While Fred’s health continues to improve, he and Sharon are still grieving as some who they pray for lose their battles with the virus. Sharon said that walking with someone who is experiencing some of the same pain she experienced so soon after Fred’s long stay in the hospital brings mixed emotions.
“It’s redeeming, beautiful and painful at the same time. It’s true empathy in the way that, when you walk through suffering, you truly understand and can offer people something real,” she said, sharing that someone she has been praying for died from the virus just last week.
“When I got the text, I just couldn’t stop weeping, and then my tears turned into prayers for that family and the suffering that they were now going through.”
She and Fred said that those in the community who have a loved one in the hospital with COVID-19 should not go through that experience alone. They recommend that they find someone to talk to who has gone through something similar, again offering Sharon’s support group.
She said that a quote attributed to St. Catherine of Siena — “It is only through the shadows that one comes to know the light” — has been particularly meaningful to her lately.
“That kind of encapsulates what we hope for others,” she said. “Through the darkness is when the light shines the brightest, and we believe, of course, that the light is the hope of Jesus Christ. … So, we are extending that hope to others, not necessarily just by proclaiming that message, but by living that message through the way that we love and care for other people who are suffering.”