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Back from the brink

A postal worker contracted COVID-19 and landed in the hospital. Three months later, he’s still finding his footing. 

Wes VerHoef, right, and his wife Sarah relax on their couch on April 5, 2020, in New York. “Can’t do much but lay on the couch,” Wes said.
Courtesy of Wes VerHoef

SALT LAKE CITY — His wife begins with lunges. In the living room, wearing a headset to broadcast on Zoom, she leads the workout she designed for him. He’s next door in the office, where a thick carpet cushions each lunge. Three months after COVID-19 started attacking his body, he still can’t take the pounding of the hardwood floor.

Wes VerHoef, a part-time mailman with thick dark eyebrows and gray sideburns to match his stubble, was fit for 47 when he contracted COVID-19. But even now that the main symptoms have passed, his body needs help to recover. When he started these workouts last month, he could only lift a light dumbbell three times before stopping to rest. He couldn’t get through 20 minutes of the program. Now, in June, he’s hoping to finish the full 45.

He figures he’s 75% or 80% recovered, but he’s been unable to return to work. Since he’s not full-time, he doesn’t qualify for disability. And since he’s still employed, he also can’t file for unemployment. But he feels blessed. He survived.

Wes likely got the virus in March, on his mail route in Stony Point, New York, visiting the Coptic Orthodox Church — site of one of the county’s earliest known cases. He woke up at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, with shakes and shivers and sweats. His father had just gotten over the flu, so he figured he had it too. But he tested negative.

That Friday, it took a dark turn. He’d been struggling to breathe, but when his family left him home to go on a brief hike, he found himself almost hyperventilating. He called his wife. She didn’t pick up. His mind raced, telling him that they were dead, lost, eaten by bears, and that he couldn’t do anything about it. Finally she called back. “I thought you were dead,” he said, feverish. “I need to go to the hospital now.

He spent a week there, losing his grip on reality as his blood-oxygen levels tanked to just around 80%. All he could focus on was the possibility of dying alone. A devout Latter-Day Saint, he spent two days in argument with the almighty. “Heavenly Father,” he’d say, “I don’t want to die. I want to watch my kids grow up. If I die, I know you probably think it’s fine, but I don’t want to die.”

The VerHoef family visits the Manhattan New York Temple on Feb. 20, 2020, before Wes Verhoef, left, contracted COVID-19.
Courtesy of Wes VerHoef

Only when he surrendered to God’s will, he said, coinciding with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ fast that Sunday, did he start to feel better.

When he came home on a Thursday afternoon, he had to hold up his jeans. He’d lost 20 pounds. He’d spend the next five weeks wheeling around an oxygen tank. In time, his symptoms would fade, leaving him only fatigued.

So he works out with his wife. After legs come biceps. This Zoom class is a physical therapy substitute, and the other participants are middle-aged women. It requires him to lift little if any weight. But today, Wes is ready to take on the 8-pound dumbbell.

He manages 10 reps, then rests. Ten more reps, then rests. He’s learned to pace himself, adapted to his new reality. He manages about 50 reps over 5 minutes — half as much as his wife, but a major improvement. The rest of the workout proceeds as planned. She announces that this is the first time Wes has finished. The rest of the class texts him with messages of congratulations.

He still feels weak. But he’s getting better. “I can open a jar,” he explains, but at least for now, “I couldn’t do it again.”