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‘It was a fight’: What’s helping this former TV host recover from COVID-19

Stacey Ellsworth leans into her husband Stan Ellsworth at their home in Draper as they talk about their life together and Stan’s road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020.
Stacey Ellsworth leans into her husband, Stan Ellsworth, at their home in Draper as they talk about their life together and Stan’s road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

DRAPER — About two months ago, Stan Ellsworth, the former host of BYUtv’s “American Ride,” was diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed on a ventilator. His chances of survival appeared grim.

The Harley-riding historian with shoulder-length blond hair, a denim jacket and skull rag almost didn’t make it.

“I was leaving,” he said. “I was on my way out the door from this mortal veil.”

This week Ellsworth is home recovering with his wife, also a COVID-19 survivor. He’s nowhere near 100% but grateful to be alive, especially considering that the virus has killed hundreds of thousands worldwide.

“I have great faith that our Heavenly Father hears our prayers and answers them,” said Ellsworth, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Fortunately for me, he felt that answering this one in the affirmative was the way to go.”

Most will recognize muscle-bound Ellsworth from his biker days as the host of BYUtv’s “American Ride.” From 2011 to 2016, Ellsworth rode a Harley Davidson and recounted significant events in American history. He won a regional Emmy for best host in 2012.

Stan Ellsworth as the host of BYUtv’s “American Ride.”
BYUtv

Ellsworth’s wife, Stacey, works at an assisted living and memory care facility in Salt Lake City. When the facility experienced a small coronavirus outbreak in May, she tested positive, although her case was mild.

“For her it lasted seven days and was just like a bad flu, no respiratory issues,” Stan Ellsworth said. “She bounced back pretty quick.”

His initial test came back negative, but within three days he was showing symptoms and the couple knew he had COVID-19. A second test came back positive. He assumed his experience would be similar to his wife’s.

“I prepared myself ... it will be OK. Just two or three days in bed, you’ll be fine,” Ellsworth said. “Then my ability to breathe became pretty badly impacted. ... Finally I figured, ‘Oh crap, I’m not going to be OK.’”

Ellsworth was taken to Alta View Hospital. Within a few hours his condition worsened and he was moved to Intermountain Medical Center, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit with severe COVID-19 pneumonia and hooked up to a ventilator. The couple was not permitted to be together again for a month.

A few days later doctors informed Stacey Ellsworth that her husband was in bad shape. They didn’t know how things would turn out and recommended she prepare for the possibility of his death.

“You better get your affairs in order. He’s the sickest man we have here,” Stan Ellsworth said. “I was in some desperate trouble.”

Stacey Ellsworth sits with her husband Stan Ellsworth at their home in Draper as they talk about their life together and Stan’s road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020.
Stacey Ellsworth sits with her husband, Stan Ellsworth, at their home in Draper as they talk about their life together and Stan’s road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Although things appeared bleak, Stacey Ellsworth knew it was not her husband’s time.

“I felt strongly that he still has too much left to do,” she said.

Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Medical Center, used to attend the same Latter-day Saint congregation as the Ellsworths. He currently chairs the COVID-19 therapeutics committee for the Intermountain system and is working to identify the most promising treatments available. He also assists with the clinical care for COVID-19 patients admitted to any of Intermountain’s 22 hospitals. He became aware of Ellsworth’s case and stepped in to help, which the family appreciated.

The doctor said Stan Ellsworth had several underlying medical conditions that put him at higher risk for a severe case.

“This is important for the public to recognize,” Webb wrote in an email. “COVID-19 is not just a disease of the elderly. Even seemingly benign underlying conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure or asthma can put younger patients at risk for life-threatening infections.”

In Ellsworth’s case, the virus caused severe lung injury and the stress of the infection affected other organs as well, resulting in a life-threatening infection and blood clots. As part of his treatment, he underwent a procedure called “proning,” which meant he was put into a medically induced coma and flipped face down to get help get more oxygen to the other parts of his lungs, Webb wrote.

Ellsworth was one of the first patients in Utah to receive a new medication called remdesivir. He also participated in another clinical trial while in the hospital. Over a period of several weeks, with these and other treatments, his lungs slowly began to heal and his body fought off the virus, Webb said.

Christian faith also played a significant role in his remarkable recovery, Ellsworth said.

Many friends of various faiths and religions across the country became aware of his condition. They fasted and prayed for his health to improve, Ellsworth said.

“When they retell the story, it sounds like half the Mormon church was fasting for Stan Ellsworth. So there were a lot of people involved in asking the Lord to look with mercy upon our family. I firmly believe that our Heavenly Father hears the sincere prayers of all of his children, regardless of their religious point of view. I’m very grateful for all of the people that put forward their faith and prayers for us.”

Another significant event took place while Ellsworth was in the middle of his ordeal — his mother, Judy Ellsworth, died. Stan Ellsworth knew this because he said his mother’s spirit visited him in the intensive care unit.

“One of the only clear memories I have of this whole thing is sitting with my mom,” Ellsworth said. “We sat and talked and she explained to me that she was moving on. She told me to fight and said we’ll make sure you get back with your family. ... When I finally did wake up, my wife and brothers were saying, ‘Hey, mom passed away.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

From that point on, Ellsworth’s condition slowly began to improve.

No visitors were permitted to visit Ellsworth, but a family friend who worked at the facility was permitted to bring some family photos to his bedside. Opening his eyes to see the faces of his loved ones helped him to combat the feeling of loneliness. One in particular, a photo of Stan and Stacey Ellsworth having fun at a stadium fireworks show, reminded him how badly he wanted to live for his wife and family.

“This is a very isolating disease. You’re all alone and that’s hard,” Ellsworth said. “Those pictures gave me strength and courage. They gave me drive to get home with Stacey.”

Ellsworth gained enough strength to return home at the end of June.

Stan Ellsworth talks about his road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020, at his home in Draper.
Stan Ellsworth talks about his road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020, at his home in Draper.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“It was a fight, one of the tougher fights I’ve had,” Ellsworth said. “My wife and I have looked at a list of things that have tried to kill me over my life. This was probably right up there in the top three.”

Among his other close calls with death, Ellsworth mentioned he was involved in an automobile accident in 2017. He survived a heart attack in 2013. When he was in high school, he was shocked while using cables to jump start a friend’s car.

Reflecting on his COVID-19 experience, Ellsworth praised and expressed deep gratitude for all the “outstanding, professional and compassionate” health care workers who cared for him.

The experience had a “unifying effect” on his family and strengthened his faith in humanity. They truly felt the prayers of many lifting them up.

“I could feel that and my wife could feel that, and that’s a powerful feeling,” Ellsworth said. “My wife says it’s like having warm water poured over you. To me it’s a feeling as powerful as that electric shock, and it gave me confidence that I could do this, that I had strength beyond my strength.”

More than anything, the host of “American Ride” is grateful to be home again with his wife and loved ones, something he feared he might not be possible at one point. In some ways he’s a changed man.

“My daughter said, ‘It’s like my dad woke up and he’s a child again. He just loves life,’” he said. “I no longer have the time for hate and anger. It takes up energy that can better be used to make a difference, or at least make the people around you happier. There are only two things I need to worry about — making sure that I’m working on me and love one another.”

His wife has a renewed gratitude for the little things of life, such as the importance of relationships, along with opportunities to serve and be kind.

“Life is so short and you just never know. I would have given anything to just hold his hand and listen to him breathe,” she said. “Go out of your way to make a difference and leave the world a better place than it was because you were there.”

Ellsworth concluded his experience with a plea for the public to be diligent in following safety guidelines and preventing the spread of the disease. Don’t fear it, but get the facts. Understand what it is and move forward with common sense and precaution. Wearing a mask and social distancing will save lives, he said.

“This is serious stuff. It is not a joke. If it gets you like it got me, it will eat you alive and poop you out dead. It is going to shake you and quake you and beat you like an old rug,” Ellsworth said. “I lost like 35 pounds while I was in there. Fortunately I had it to lose.”

Stan Ellsworth looks up at his wife Stacey Ellsworth as she helps his with his oxygen tube as they talk about their life together and Stan’s road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020, at their home in Draper.
Stan Ellsworth looks up at his wife, Stacey Ellsworth, as she helps his with his oxygen tube as they talk about their life together and Stan’s road to recovery from COVID-19 on Monday, July 6, 2020, at their home in Draper.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News