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NEWS | Dec. 1, 2022

COVID, Courage and Kayaking

By MaryTherese Griffin Army

In 2021, the world was experiencing coronavirus in full force. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 34% of Americans tested positive for COVID-19 in 2021. Sgt. 1st Class Mike Hieb was one of them.
“I got COVID while stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and went into the hospital June 20, 2021.”

He was there for a week and was moved to another hospital in Rolla, Missouri. His family was called because the virus was shutting his body down.

“They said I wasn’t going to make it through the night, my family was all called in to say goodbye,” said Hieb. Scary stuff especially when no one was prepared for this complete family dynamic change.

“We’ve got twenty years’ experience as a military family; we were getting ready to retire. We were not ready for this. Never in a million years would I have thought we would end up at a Soldier Recovery Unit (SRU). The Army rescinded his retirement paperwork in order to allow him to fully recover,” explained his wife, Michelle.

After a third hospital change, Hieb went to San Antonio in July. He spent months at Brooke Army Medical Center before getting orders to move his family there where he was assigned to the Soldier Recovery Unit.

“Heart failure, kidney failure and my lungs weren’t working because of COVID. The hospital had a lot of work to do,” said the 53-year-old who continued he was in great health and no one in their house had COVID or been exposed.

“The hospital staff was amazing. They were so friendly and so caring to me and my family. The physical therapists, occupational therapists and nurses were taking care of me and my dignity which was so important,” said the Senior Religious Affairs NCO.

Dr. Whitney Warren, his pulmonologist, was instrumental in getting him back in shape through several procedures on his lungs. He had severe permanent scaring from COVID in his lungs.

“She was awesome. She was there every step of the way making sure I could breathe,” said Hieb who says he also had to learn to walk again, sit up, and roll over. It was a journey. One that would take him to the Soldier Recovery Unit where he would work on his and his family’s new normal.

“The SRU was a Godsend. It was very traumatic for us as a family. To have someone there helping to make my husband’s appointments, getting his schedule together, taking care of us. They were a team of angels making sure he was taken care of and even our entire family. My son at one point asked to talk to a social worker because he was struggling with what was happening and they were there for him,” explained Michelle.

Besides having a lot of appointments, Hieb would have to get used to carrying around an oxygen tank… for the rest of his life. “By November I knew I would live but I also knew I would be on oxygen for the rest of my life. It was a matter of adapting and learning what I could do to function in life and carry on with activities,” said Hieb.

An avid kayaker, Hieb learned from the tenacity of the SRU staff that an oxygen tank when approved by docs could be part of darn near any activity… including kayaking and fishing.

“Lorraine Currow the Recreational Care Coordinator at the SRU made sure I had the opportunity to kayak. One of her ideas was to wrap pool noodles around the tank to protect it. We laughed, we didn’t need to do that, but we were able to get my doctors permission allowing me to participate in these activities,” Hieb shared.

“This is Adaptive Reconditioning at its best! It took a bit of reassurance for the kayak crew that he can manage, and he pulled it off every time,” said Lorraine Currow.

The recovery is there for the taking according to the now retired Hieb, who recently moved with his family back home to Kentucky. Trusting in yourself and the SRU staff, he says, is the first step.

“The more you can do, the more you can be like your old self the better you are going to be. Getting out and kayaking and fishing was a big part of my recovery and the SRU made that possible.”

Oxygen tank in tow, Hieb gives one final bit of praise to the Army Recovery Care Program appreciative of their support on his journey to today.

“I couldn’t even imagine not having this program. I can’t put into words enough how I was treated in the SRU. The weekly activities are so beneficial for your physical, spiritual, and educational recovery and strengthening. They truly want you to be a well-rounded person in your recovery. They treat the whole person.”