ALBANY — Ricky DeNure was on the brink of being the worst kind of COVID-19 statistic: A death. The 1982 Black Hawk graduate and current Albany resident was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus in October, and within days of the diagnosis went into a coma and was transported to UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital in Madison.
For six long weeks his family and friends waited. Finally, two days before Thanksgiving, he awoke.
“When I finally came out of it, I remember distinctly, it was like a hand made out of light, and it just came towards my face and just started brushing my cheek. That’s when I opened eyes and woke up,” Ricky said.
After coming out of his coma, he needed to rehabilitate his body completely — from strengthening his hands and arms to relearning how to stand and walk. On Jan. 20, after 96 days in medical care, he was released and allowed to go home.
“The first thing I enjoyed was the fresh air, I’ll tell you that. In the hospital, all you’re breathing is dry air and cement walls. It was a real warm feeling to walk into my house again,” Ricky said, adding that recovering from COVID-19 has changed him. “It’s the small things that you kind of overlook, that you took for granted before that. I mean, just standing up to get out of bed or going to the restroom. You just can’t take that stuff for granted.”
But there was another surprise in store for him. His family had set up a drive-by parade to welcome him home. First the village police car drove by. Then the ambulance, fire and water utility vehicles. After that, two dozen private vehicles filled with family and friends honked, waved and held out signs on a blistery afternoon while DeNure and his children watched from his front porch.
“That was very touching. I got a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes,” Ricky said.
The first thing I enjoyed was the fresh air, I’ll tell you that. In the hospital, all you’re breathing is dry air and cement walls. It was a real warm feeling to walk into my house again.Ricky DeNure
‘One of the lucky ones’
There have been more than 2,600 cases of COVID-19 in Green County, with 12 deaths. The death rate of 0.45% of closed cases in the county is just 1/7th the rate across the world, 1/6th the rate in the United States, and just 2/5th the rate in Wisconsin.
“I was a part of the 1% that got it really bad,” Ricky said. “This COVID, it doesn’t discriminate. Playing the odds, you never think you’re going to get it, but when you get it, it really sucks for you and your family and friends. My kids went through hell. My friends, they thought I was a goner.”
On Oct. 5, Ricky came home from work with a terrible headache. Five days later, after testing positive for COVID-19, he went to Monroe Clinic. By Oct. 13, he was put on a ventilator and then on Oct. 15 was Med-Flighted to Meriter Hospital in Madison, falling into a coma.
Doctors later told him that if he hadn’t called his daughter Jolene to take him into the clinic when he did, he might not have woken back up. He hadn’t used up all his good fortunes, either.
“It was just pure luck that I even got a bed in Madison,” Ricky said.
That’s because, when he was transferred to Meriter, there was only one bed available.
“Shortly after that, Meriter was no longer accepting respiratory patients — they weren’t even triaging patients,” Jolene said. “The fact that he was able to get in and get a bed and excellent care is a miracle, too. (COVID-19) is affecting a lot of people, and he’s one of the lucky ones, for sure.”
Unsure of contraction
Ricky said he doesn’t know where or when exactly he had been infected. He has multiple jobs — he works for the Village of Albany and is a driver for the EMS crew; he is a line judge in volleyball for both Black Hawk, his alma mater, and Albany, where the high school is just a short walk from his home; he also runs the scoreboard at Albany games from time to time; and is a DJ on the side for weddings and other parties.
Ricky said he was setting up for a wedding in Arena when he started to feel sick to his stomach. He had already been suffering from headaches and a fever, so he went home and received a call from Monroe Clinic confirming his diagnosis from a test taken earlier in the week. It was a Friday, and he debated waiting until Monday to head into the clinic for any treatment. He went to bed, but awoke in the middle of the night hardly able to breathe. He took his temperature: 103.4 degrees.
“I called my daughter Jolene and said ‘You better come and get me and take me in,’” Ricky said. “When I got into Monroe, they put me into a room right away, and that’s the last thing that I remember.”
He posted a video to Facebook Oct. 13 while on a ventilator. He said he was exhausted, but was fighting and could feel the prayers coming in. The post received more than 200 reactions and comments alike.
“I made a couple videos that I posted (to Facebook) that said, ‘Hello folks, I’ve got COVID and it sucks. I drew the short end of the straw,’” Ricky said.
While in the coma, he had a trach in his neck and a feeding tube in his stomach.
“There were machines keeping (him) alive, and it was very scary,” Jolene said.
The fact that he was able to get in and get a bed and excellent care is a miracle, too. (COVID-19) is affecting a lot of people, and he’s one of the lucky ones, for sure.Jolene DeNure, Ricky's daughter
Weird dreams, and the power of prayer
Coma patients, and COVID-19 patients, have reported vivid, wildly far-fetched dreams. Ricky was no different.
While in comatose, he dreamt he was carried by a Disney cruise line, and the boat’s captain, a tall, skinny, bald Russian named Yakov, told Ricky he was going to a desert island to get rid of his COVID-19 infection. On the island they met a witch doctor while a vulture flew around above the tent. The witch doctor cured the COVID-19 infection at the end of dream.
That’s when Ricky woke up to the real world again.
“I felt somebody brushing my face, and I looked up and I seen a couple of nurses and a doctor. And when I came to, all I could move was my eyes,” Ricky said.
He could hardly speak because of the trach in his neck, and his muscles were too weak to move, including his arms and legs.
“I felt like a prisoner in my body,” Ricky said.
Ricky recounted how after waking from the coma, the nurse asked him a few simple questions, one at a time: Do you know why you are here? Do you know where you are? Do you know what time of the year it is?
Ricky got just the first answer correct: COVID-19. He thought he was in Monroe, not Madison, and didn’t believe them when they said it was two days before Thanksgiving and not mid-October.
“I had all my brain functions and I thought I only slept for a day, but they were like, ‘no, you’ve been here six weeks,’” said Ricky, who then gestured to his children. “Meanwhile, these guys, they were going through hell.”
“Every little gain has helped us stay positive,” said Jolene. She said that when Ricky came out of his coma, it was a chance for the family to breathe a bit of a sigh of relief.
Jolene kept friends and family updated on Ricky’s condition using social media. She also oversaw his medical care, while Ricky’s son Dwight took the responsibility of maintaining the house and paying the bills.
“Jolene was the one doing all the hard work, taking the calls from the nurses and updating everyone every single day,” Dwight said. “I was here to do the finances and clean up the house.”
While he was in a coma, family sent digital videos that the hospital staff would play to Ricky. After he was alert and conscious, he kept up with family doing video calls on an iPad.
Ricky said there was an outpouring of support. He said he had received over 400 cards in the mail, and many hundreds more well wishes in text messages and Facebook. “And a lot of prayers,” Ricky said. “I’ve told people that hand that brushed my face was an angel, and I think it was all the prayers that I felt and these cards and everything. I think, just subconsciously, it lifted my spirit when I was in my coma and helped brought me out. I really do.”
By Christmas, Ricky was on the mend, but still hospitalized. Jolene had gotten Ricky his own Christmas tree that livened up his hospital room, and Ricky posted a video to Facebook on Christmas Eve thanking everyone for lifting his spirit that has been viewed 5,300 times.
“The cards are unbelievable — people don’t even know. I found out there’s a prayer list for me in California, Texas and Florida — all over the United States,” Ricky said.
He said that that COVID-19 has changed him, and that it brought him “a little bit closer to God.”
“I wasn’t really into God before, but I’ve got to believe that the hand that touched me that came from heaven. It’s the only thing that makes sense, you know?” Ricky said. “It was so real when it brushed my face. It was three brushes and then I opened my eyes. It was just an unbelievable feeling.”
Jolene was the one doing all the hard work, taking the calls from the nurses and updating everyone every single day. I was here to do the finances and clean up the house.Dwight DeNure, Ricky's son
The long road of recovery
In his physical therapy, Ricky said the nurses worked him hard. He compared it to his first week of freshman football in high school, while some nurses shared that others compared it to soldiers’ first week of basic training in the army.
“I was never so soar in my entire life. This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “Slowly but surely, I started getting movement back.”
First, it was his left arm. With some physical therapy, they began working on his leg muscles.
On Nov. 25, Ricky left Meriter and moved in across the street at Select Specialty Hospital. Two weeks later he was off his ventilator, and his trach tube came out 10 days after that on Dec. 23.
During his time on the respiratory floor at Select, he was a front row witness as the nurses “went through hell” — because every day patients were dying of COVID-19.
“I would check them out at the beginning of their shift, and they were all happy, you know, coming in. But at the end of every shift — they worked 12-hour shifts — you could see them just dragging. They were worn out,” Ricky said. “The nurses and doctors don’t get a lot of credit for what they have to put up with. There’s a lot of work, like I said, and they’re really worn out at the end of their shift.”
Always the one to try to lift up the spirits of those around him, Ricky decided to play music from the iPad his family had given him. “I was known as the party room.”
He said the music also helped himself mentally and emotionally. “When you’re in there, all you’ve got is four walls, so you’ve got to do something. They leave you alone, so I listened to a lot of music,” Ricky said.
Four weeks ago, he couldn’t stand, but now he’s able to move around on his own with assistance from a walker.
Of all limbs and muscles, he said it’s his right hand and arm that are lagging behind. He said he feels like he tore a muscle in his shoulder and that two weeks ago he could only move it a couple of inches, while now he’s captured a lot more movement and strength.
Because his oxygen level is low — currently around 90% — Ricky was advised against receiving a COVID-19 vaccine just yet. “They want me at 100 before I do something like that — but they do want me to get the shot,” he said.
He’ll continue therapy at home 2-3 days a week, and said that he is motivated to give it his all in therapy. “I want to get back to normal. I want to get back to work; I want to get back to DJing. That’s my main goal,” Ricky said.
When he’s back to full strength, he said he will be more precautious with his health, but “I’m not going to live in a box. That’s not me.”
When Black Hawk’s girls basketball team played at Albany just five days before Ricky was released, Derik Doescher and Mike Flanagan, head coaches from the two teams, spoke about Ricky before the game.
“Ricky has fought COVID-19 for 3-and-a-half long months,” Doescher said. “Even though there were times Ricky was certainly the underdog, we all know that anyone with a personality as large as Ricky’s couldn’t stay down for long. Most people in the communities of South Wayne, Gratiot and Albany know Ricky for his upbeat personality, his hard work ethic and his willingness to do anything of others.”Flanagan thanked Ricky for being an inspiration. “We all look at what you’ve been through, and (you) are a testament to the will to continue to contribute to your communities.”
Ricky not only made an impact on the coaches and adults in the community, but also on the youth. An Albany eighth grader wrote an essay to the Wisconsin State Journal for their “Helping Hands” program. The program asked kids how they would use $200 to help someone else. The student nominated Ricky and won.
“Between the parade, the cards, the messages and the coaches talking about me at the game the other night, I had an eighth grader write up an essay about me. She remained anonymous, so I’m just going to assume it was the whole eighth grade class. For her to pay attention to me like that,” Ricky said, trailing off, “I didn’t think I really did anything for anybody, but apparently I did. I was just being me.”
Jolene said that her family is grateful for the support and love they received throughout the ordeal.
“Just knowing that there was a lot of support, a lot of people pulling for him and he’s a strong guy,” Jolene said. “We’re very thankful that he used his strength to pull through.”
Dear Helping Hands:
My name is…, and I am in the 8th grade at the Albany Community Middle Schools, in Albany, Wisconsin. We are writing Helping Hands letters in class. I would like to nominate Ricky DeNure to receive the $200.
I believe that Ricky should receive this money because he is in a difficult situation with COVID-19. Ricky does a lot for our community; he is a very nice guy. He helps on the EMS crew for Albany by being the driver for the crew. He helps out around the community by: working for the village, helping out with sporting events, doing clock and scoreboard for highschool basketball games. Ricky is in the hospital with COVID-19, and is having a rough recovery. If Ricky received the $200, he would probably use it to pay hospital bills…and anything else he is in need of. Ricky brings joy o our community, maybe it’s time for us to bring some joy to him right now, since he could use it.
— Anonymous Albany eighth grade student