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This Amherst dad rarely got sick – and then Covid-19 hit him hard

As a 36-year-old guy who plays hockey, stays in shape, doesn’t smoke and rarely gets sick, Jeff Shepard considered himself an unlikely candidate to catch Covid-19.

Then, in mid-March, the virus hit him like a freight train.

Today, after an ordeal that had him terrified he would never see his wife and three kids again, the Amherst man feels fortunate to be alive.

He’s thankful to the people who took care of him at Buffalo General Medical Center, and to all the family members and friends who prayed for his recovery.

“I don’t want to sound like I am this victim who needs everyone’s pity. I know I am one of the lucky ones,” Shepard said in an interview after doctors pronounced him healthy. “But there were times when I was delirious, scared and worried I would never see my family again. There were times when I was struggling to breathe, and it took every bit of strength and concentration I had just to get out of bed and walk three steps to use the bathroom.”

He said he agreed to tell his story to The Buffalo News because he wants everyone – including healthy young people – to know that all are susceptible to Covid-19.

He also wants people who are afflicted with the virus to keep fighting and stay hopeful, because the vast majority of people who get sick from the coronavirus do recover.

“People want their lives to return to normal, and I totally understand that,” Shepard said. “But I want everyone, including people my age, to know that anything can happen. Be careful. Take this virus seriously. Don’t put more health care workers at risk by getting sick.”

Shepard, a Canisius College graduate, is the sales manager for Lineage, an Amherst company that sells business equipment and software. He is married to Chelsey Shepard, a pharmacist, and is the father of 7-year-old twin sons, Wayne and Simon, and a 3-year-old daughter, Paige.

A cough, then fever

While he doesn’t know for sure, Shepard believes he caught the virus during a grocery store visit in the middle of March.

His symptoms began on March 16 with a “dry, unsatisfying cough” that got worse over the next couple of days. By March 18, he had a fever. By March 22, his fever had risen to 103 degrees and he was so weak he could barely get out of bed.

A day later, he rolled out of bed and just laid on the floor. Shepard sent an email to his sales team that he was “really sick” and would be out of touch until further notice.

With his wife acting as his nurse and staying in close touch with a family doctor, Shepard tried to recover at home. His wife bought him a device that measured the oxygen saturation level of his blood. The doctor told Shepard that if the blood oxygen level went below 90%, he should get to a hospital.

On a Saturday, March 28, he was weak, dizzy and his heart was racing. After his blood oxygen level dipped below 90% several times, his wife rushed him to Buffalo General.

“We walked into the emergency room, and the people could see I was in distress," Shepard said. "They ran over to me, immediately sent my wife out, gave me a mask and put me in a wheelchair. At this point, I could barely breathe. They put tubes into my nose and started giving me oxygen.”

'Is my family going to be OK?'

Testing positive for Covid-19, Shepard began fighting “the hardest and loneliest” battle of his life.

“After they got me settled into a room, a doctor came in and examined me," Shepard said. “He told me, ‘The good news is, 80% of the people who get to the point you’re at right now get out of here alive.’ I said, ‘Those numbers suck. I don’t like that at all.’ He told me he was just being honest with me.”

Sweating with a fever and more exhausted than he had ever felt in his life, Shepard spent the next few days fighting for breath, desperately needing sleep. But he worried that if he fell asleep, he would never wake up.

He worried many times that he would never again see his wife and children.

“The loneliness, when you’re alone in your hospital room, and nobody can visit you while you are fighting to take your next breath … that was one of the hardest things about this whole experience,” Shepard said. “I kept asking myself, ‘Are my affairs in order? Is my family going to be OK if I never get out of here?’ ”

He said the worst moment came on his fourth night in the hospital.

“I got up in the middle of the night, my monitors were beeping like crazy," he recalled. "I was struggling to breathe. I hit the button for the nurse to come in. My sheets were soaked with sweat, and the nurse put a cold washcloth on my head. The part I’ll never forget is her calming voice, coaching me through every breath. ‘OK, breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.’ I don’t think I would have made it through that night without her.”

Shepard said he had several similar scares over the next few days. He said the hospital workers who took care of him “saved my life.”

“I remember one day, a nurse who knew my aunt came in and talked to me for 20 minutes,” he said. “It felt so great, just talking to someone who knew my family. That meant so much.”

Unable to have visitors, he was thankful for videos of his kids on his iPhone, but watching them made him cry.

“I’m not a religious person. But yes, I did pray during this time,” Shepard said. “And it really meant a lot to me when I was told people were praying for me.”

He said he had a setback about halfway through his hospital stay, when doctors at the hospital prescribed him hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that had been touted as a potential virus cure. The Federal Drug Administration has since cautioned against the widespread use of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19, and has advised health care providers to use it only in hospital settings and clinical trials after a study suggested additional risks to patients.

"A doctor said it might help me, I had nothing to lose," Shepard said. "They gave it to me for two days, and that medication wrecked me. It made me extremely nauseous, with the worst stomach ache ever, and even more fatigued. For the first time, my vision got blurry. I begged them to take me off it, and they did.”

Beginning to recover

Six days into his hospital stay, he finally began to feel he was gaining some strength and moving in the right direction. He was released on April 4.

According to government health agencies, nearly 6,000 people in America died of Covid-19 during Shepard's scary week in the hospital.

“Getting home, seeing Chelsey and the kids, that was the greatest feeling of my entire life,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to touch or hold the kids for a couple of days.”

There were still some rough days ahead. For about a week, Shepard said, he was still so weak he could barely get out of bed.

At one point, on April 14, he felt “stabbing pains” in his chest and thought he was having a heart attack. His doctor told him the pain was caused by inflammation in his lung. That put him at ease, and the pain subsided.

By Thursday, there had been slow and steady progress, and Shepard felt much better, although still a bit weak and experiencing some shortness of breath.

“I got a letter from the Erie County Health Department telling me that I am cleared, I no longer have to be in any kind of isolation,” Shepard said. “I’m getting back in the swing of things, doing remote meetings with my people at work.”

Shepard said he is more appreciative of little things, like sitting in a chair with his daughter watching a Disney movie on TV.

"I know how fortunate I am," Shepard said. "It was the hardest thing I ever went through in my life, but as bad as I was, I never had to go on a ventilator.”

Citing privacy regulations, officials of Kaleida Health, the agency that runs Buffalo General Medical Center, declined to provide any details on Shepard's stay in the hospital. They declined to comment on the hospital's policy regarding the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat patients.

Senior vice president Michael P. Hughes said Kaleida officials are pleased to hear that Shepard is doing better and that he credits hospital staffers for saving his life. He said doctors, nurses, therapists and others at Buffalo General have been working "around the clock and nonstop" to help Covid-19 patients.

On May 7, Shepard is scheduled to go to the Roswell Park Clinical Research Center and donate blood plasma that will be used to treat other Covid-19 victims. Medical experts say injections of blood plasma from people who have survived the virus seem to have helped others to recover.

“So maybe my blood plasma will save somebody’s life,” Shepard said. “I’m really happy about that.”

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