'So grateful to be able to be here': COVID-19 survivor thanks hospital staff who saved him

A man presses a red bell.
Rick Huggins rings the COVID-19 discharge bell outside of Bethesda Hospital with his riding partner Thomas Olek (center) and Bethesda health unit coordinator Alex Leal (right) in St. Paul on Saturday. Huggins was sedated and on a ventilator for 30 days after contracting the virus.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In early March, Rick and Patty Huggins drove to Ohio to see family. It was in the waning moments of life before COVID-19 for much of the country, and for Rick Huggins.

During the trip he started to feel sick, so they drove back to Minnesota. As they returned home, they embarked on a new, terrifying journey — one that saw Rick hospitalized for weeks and near death from COVID-19.

But Rick Huggins persevered, and on Saturday he made a return trip to M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul — this time on a long bike ride — to thank the doctors and nurses who saved him.

“I am for the rest of my life indebted to you all. I’m so grateful to be able to be here. I love you guys. Thank you," he said.

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A man on a bike rides past a line of people.
Rick Huggins pulls up to Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul halfway through a 60-mile bike ride on Saturday. Huggins could barely walk when he was discharged from the hospital after battling COVID-19.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Within a week of arriving home back in March, Rick, 51, was seriously ill and his fever wasn’t breaking. His wife decided he needed medical help.

“Being a guy, I was trying to tough it out at home and my wife finally, thank God, had enough of it and forced me to come to the hospital," Rick Huggins recalled Saturday. "And I'm thankful that she did it; had she not done that I'd probably have died in my bed that night. But it never crossed my mind. Like so many people still today that think it's just the flu. I couldn't have been more wrong. It's nothing to mess with.”

Patty took him to Bethesda in St. Paul, the state’s only hospital that is fully dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients.

"I texted her that they're going to intubate me and it'd be a couple of days before we could talk. And then the next thing I know they're taking the tube out and 30 days have passed," Rick said.

He stayed in the hospital for several more days to recover. Weak from intubation, he spent 20 more days in a rehab center. He lost 35 pounds.

A person in scrubs talks to a man on a bike.
Physical therapist Tara Kelly speaks with Rick Huggins, who she worked with extensively as he recovered from COVID-19, outside of Bethesda Hospital. "This is why we do what we do," Kelly said after seeing Huggins again.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“I didn't have the strength to roll over in bed without help. I couldn't stand on my own. I had to learn to walk again," he said. "It was a milestone, just to be able to walk from my hospital bed to the restroom and back. I would be covered in sweat from it. It was so grueling.”

For much of that time, his wife couldn't see him.

“It's hard because you're not here," Patty Huggins recalled. "You're just sitting at home waiting. And that was hard.”

Patty would speak with nurses at Bethesda daily, checking in on how Rick was doing. She said the nurses always gave her time and hope.

“I would call every morning, like 6 a.m., to see how he did through the night. I'd call about 11. I'd call about 3 or 4 and then 6 and then like 9 o'clock. They were so good. Oh, my God — they never put me in a place where I was afraid to call them," she said.

A man in a bike helmet smiles.
Rick Huggins smiles as he visits the hospital staff who cared for him at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul on Saturday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Rick Huggins' return to Bethesda over the weekend marked 100 days of recovery from COVID-19. Outside to greet him were many of the nurses and doctors who’d worked on helping Rick fight through and recover from COVID-19.

Among them was Dr. Andrew Olson, one of the medical directors at Bethesda.

"It's moments like this, where we're seeing a patient who was so sick, sick as you can be, riding a bike on this beautiful late summer, Minnesota day. This is why we do it," Olson said. "We are in the service of helping people heal. And it's moments like this that we'll remember when we get more patients tomorrow and the next day and into November.”

Huggins was one of the first COVID-19 patients in the hospital. He came in at a time when doctors and nurses were dealing with the trepidation of the unknowns of the coronavirus.

“To be candid in the beginning, we all had a lot of apprehension and just almost just empathy for the families because we were giving all the supportive care we could, but we had no treatments. So we just felt kind of helpless. watching these people be so sick for so long," said Dr. Erica Kuhlmann, one of the doctors who cared for Huggins in the ICU at Bethesda.

“And now I feel like we're more empowered," she said. "We have different therapeutics we can use. ... We see our survival rates being so much improved since the beginning. And so that really is kind of giving us a lot more hope. We feel much more control.”

When patients recover and are discharged from Bethesda, the Beatles song "Here Comes the Sun" is played over the hospital PA system and the patient rings a bell on their way out. On Saturday, a bell was brought outside for Rick Huggins to ring once again — and he did, with vigor.

"It definitely changes your outlook on life," he said of COVID-19. "I feel like I've started over again. Things that used to be important to me, they’re not. I don't get angry in traffic. I don't worry about things. I'm enjoying life every day right now. If I'm out, and I'm enjoying the blue sky and the clouds and a summer day, that's the best thing in the world, just to focus on the little things.”