Florida coronavirus survivor returns home with 'second chance' at life after 8 weeks
Wayne Walker doesn’t get sick.
The 62-year-old from Ormond Beach is a runner. He’s an avid golfer. He rides his bike on the beach and walks his dog around the neighborhood. Besides a broken leg two decades ago, he’s never been in a hospital.
But on March 11, he woke up with a fever. So began a perilous two-month battle against coronavirus that included being placed on a ventilator, a lengthy coma, and finding himself at death’s doorstep not once, but twice.
Walker is proof that perseverance and prayers matter. On Sunday, he sat with family and friends beneath a tent in his driveway on Treasure Lane, waving as a couple hundred friends drove by honking their horns in a parade.
“Wayne is our miracle,” read one sign.
To fully appreciate the miracle that is Walker, it’s best to go back to the beginning of his coronavirus experience.
“We had gone out a few days before (March 11) for the opening weekend of Bike Week,” said Julie Cowne-Walker, his wife of four years. “He woke up and wasn’t feeling too well. It just kept getting worse.”
Walker went to an urgent care that Saturday and tested negative for the flu. Still, doctors were convinced that’s what it was.
The following Tuesday, Julie implored her husband to take his temperature one last time before leaving for work.
“It was 103.1,” she remembered. “That’s when I knew something wasn’t right.”
That St. Patrick’s Day morning, March 17, Walker was admitted to AdventHealth Daytona Beach. In less than 24 hours, he would begin the 8-week fight for his life that included 22 days on a ventilator, six days on a RotoProne bed, two points at which it did not appear that he would survive, a priest and funeral arrangements.
He doesn’t remember most of it.
“Hearing them tell me the story now, it’s scary,” Walker said. “You listen to it and you’re like, that can’t possibly be me. It’s a surreal feeling.”
‘Tape on the door’
Hours after admitting her husband to the hospital, Julie knew something was off. Then the nurses and doctors began wearing masks in their room, and she connected the dots.
“Then they put tape on the door,” she said. “That’s when I knew. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they think he has COVID.”
Walker’s breathing began to deteriorate the next day, March 18. That night, he called his daughter, Rachel Walker, who lives in San Francisco.
“He was really out of breath,” she remembered. “It got to the point where it was so hard for him to talk that he had to go.”
The next morning, Walker’s vitals started to crash. His oxygen levels began to plummet. That afternoon, he was put into an induced-coma and on a ventilator.
That was March 19. Walker was now officially one of Volusia County’s earliest coronavirus patients.
“Julie called me and she was bawling,” Rachel Walker said of her step-mom. “I knew I had to get out of there, but this was around the time when San Francisco started to shut down the city. I got the next flight out. It had 12 people on it, but it took off.”
Rachel would soon join her brother, Garrett, who lives in DeLand, and step-mom in Ormond Beach. Six days later, Wayne’s condition began to deteriorate further, and the three had a decision to make.
“The doctor called me and said there was nothing else they could do,” Julie said. “We were going in the next day for an end-of-life conversation. So we went in and (Rachel) said to him, ‘Dad, do you need more time?’
“He shook his head, ‘Yes.’”
‘Rise from the dead’
Over the next two weeks, doctors continued to “throw everything they had” at Walker, who would spend six days on a RotoProne bed after his lungs developed Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). RotoProne beds are used to strap patients in the prone (face-down) position to improve oxygen in the lungs.
“They gave him over 15 antibiotics,” Julie said. “They even tried that malaria drug, and it didn’t work. It got to the point where they just said it was in God’s hands.”
Walker’s blood pressure began to drop a few days later, and his kidney’s started to fail. On April 3 his family was called in to say their goodbyes yet again. A priest greeted them at the hospital. Funeral arrangements were being made.
“I bought a dress (for the funeral),” Rachel Walker said. “We went home that night and I remember just waiting for the doctor to call to tell us he passed. That was the worst part, the fact that we couldn’t be there with him if he had.
“He would have died alone.”
Walker survived the night. And then another. And then another after that.
On April 9, Walker, the re-marketing manager for 21st Mortgage, was taken off the ventilator. Three days later on Easter Sunday, Julie was awakened at 4 a.m.
“We had him on video on the Facebook Messenger app that went to our phones,” she said. “I heard something and it was him talking. He was like, ‘Where are you? I want to come home.’ I called the nurses station and they didn’t believe it.
“So that’s our joke now … not only did Jesus rise from the dead that day, but so did Wayne.”
Walker was on the ventilator for 22 days. He lost 47 pounds (215 to 168). He woke up with barely any kidney function, an eye infection, a rash on his feet, and lungs that were operating at barely 60%.
But he was awake. He was alive.
“And totally confused,” he said with laugh. “No idea where I was, what was going on. I didn’t know anything. I had no concept of time. Nothing made sense. It definitely didn’t feel like it had been three weeks. If anything it felt more like three hours.”
A week later, Walker began rehab. His muscles had completely atrophied, forcing him to relearn everything, from getting out of bed in the morning, to brushing his teeth, to walking down the hall.
On May 4, after two more weeks of testing positive for COVID-19, he finally received back-to-back negative results. For the first time since St. Patrick’s Day, he could have a visitor.
“He was actually doing physical therapy when I walked in,” Rachel Walker said. “I said something, he turned around and saw me, and I think we hugged for about five straight minutes. We didn’t want to let go. It was a moment I didn’t know if I’d ever get again.”
Walker was released from the hospital this past Friday, nearly two months after doctor’s put that ominous piece of tape on his door. By Sunday afternoon, all of Ormond Beach knew he was back.
Julie is a hair dresser, and she asked her friend and customer, Charlene Greer, to help organize a surprise parade for Walker.
Greer, who also is chairperson of Jeep Beach Inc., definitely knows how to organize a parade. Dozens of Jeeps, motorcycles, Corvettes, police cars, fire trucks, Ormond Beach Mayor Bill Partington, and others showed up a few blocks away at the parking lot of the former Lucky’s grocery store.
“Julie and Wayne have supported the Jeep Beach effort for years,” Greer said. “They’re just amazing people.
Greer recalled that as Walker battled the worst coronavirus could throw at him, Julie asked for prayers. So Greer and friends began a prayer chain.
“Everyone was just praying,” she said. “We were expecting a miracle, and we got it.”
The parade was joyous, with horns honking, dogs barking, and people applauding.
“You are a fighter,” read one sign. “Way to kick COVID-19’s ass,” read another. “You are loved,” read one more.
For a grinning Walker, it was a day two months in the making, and one he didn’t think he’d get to see.
“I feel like I have a second chance at life now,” he said with a smile. “What a wild ride.”
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.