coronavirus survivor

13 Weeks After He Was Hospitalized With COVID-19, Montco Painter Heads Home

Gary Shollenberger is a watercolor painter who caught the coronavirus after his wife returned home from a work trip to Nevada

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In the thick of his recovery from COVID-19, Gary Shollenberger was having trouble with his memory.

His daughter got a new kitten - he must have heard that story a few times, and each time, it was news. He would text his wife Joan saying "call me," and then after hanging up with her, text her again, "are you going to call?"

His story is a stark reminder of one more possible consequence of contracting the virus that has killed more than 121,000 people in the U.S. - you might not even remember the ordeal. Gary, 63, spent six weeks at Abington Hospital and another seven weeks at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philly.

But on Wednesday, 91 days after entering Abington, staff and family looked on - and the Rocky theme "Gonna Fly Now" played - as Gary stepped out of Magee with a walker, passing dozens of cheering staff.

Joan remembers having symptoms of the disease after returning from a work trip to Las Vegas on March 12. Gary, who has an autoimmune condition, caught it 5 days later, even after Joan stayed far away and tried not to transmit the virus to him.

Joan and Gary have been married 33 years and he paints, mostly landscapes and seascapes.

Very excited to learn one of my latest paintings just won an award in the Greater Norristown Art League's annual show!...

Posted by Gary Shollenberger on Saturday, March 11, 2017

On March 25, Joan dropped Gary off at the door to Abington Hospital with his necessary papers in a brown paper lunchbag. She wasn't allowed in to minimize the spread of the virus.

"It's just an experience that no one ever could imagine, where you literally can't be there, you can't go into the hospital," Joan said.

He was placed on a ventilator almost right away and was on it for 15 days. Gary possibly had a stroke while on the ventilator and has numbness in his left leg. Joan was asked if she wanted to sign a do not resuscitate order.

“There were numerous times when they weren’t sure he was gonna make it," she added.

At one point in the post-ventilator weeks, while Facetiming with his family, he needed a nurse to hold the phone because he couldn't hold a firm grip. And he struggled to eat before entering Magee May 13 - he had to re-learn how to swallow, and has progressed from pureed food up to a regular diet again.

With walking still a difficulty, Gary has about 10 months of recovery to feel how he did before going to the hospital. But that can be done at home, when home health staff from Jefferson - which also runs the two hospitals where Gary stayed - plan to visit two or three days per week.

But despite that work up ahead, Gary's release Wednesday had Joan thinking about how much progress he's made, especially since he was released from the ICU.

"It's great to see that growth, that cognitively he's all back. ... I'll often say to him, 'You're such a miracle, you survived this with all that you had going on before,'" Joan said.

NBC10 is collecting the stories of COVID-19 survivors. If you have a survival story you want told, reach out to Digital Content Producer Joe Brandt at Joe.Brandt@nbcuni.com.

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