HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — After a Colorado couple survived a fight against COVID-19, they say now is a time like no other for a second chance at life.
We’ve all endured more than a year of coping with COVID-19, learning about the virus and the depth of its impact on every aspect of our lives.
Mark and Suzanne Nepi did that and more. They both came down with COVID-19, and Mark almost didn’t survive it. They don’t really know how they got it, but they did.
Even with $1 million in medical bills, looking back on their experience in October and November of 2020, the Nepis are thankful.
They’re so thankful that they took tons of snacks and drinks to the ICU staff at Littleton Hospital, where Mark fought for weeks to survive. It was the least they could do for the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other hospital personnel who were his eyes and ears since Suzanne was not allowed to be the side of her husband of 30 years.
“How do we look back on it? We have very different lenses. I mean, my perspective and Mark’s, obviously, the end goal is very similar and that he survived and that he came home and that he's making wonderful progress is all just icing on the cake,” Suzanne said. “But we both look at it a little bit differently. I see him making the progress that he's making from the first day I was allowed into the ICU and he couldn't lift his head off the pillow. And this past week, he walked three and a half miles. But he has obviously a very different lens, and I think we both share our gratitude. But he has emotions and feelings that I can't begin to know.”
“Yeah, I get pulled back into it,” Mark said. “Yesterday, I was pulled back into it because the day before, we had vaccines, and we thought, ‘that's great.’ Twenty-four hours, I'm doing great, and last night I had a temperature. And I haven't had a temperature since I was in the hospital four months ago. And that kind of takes you right back because it happened here. When I was in the hospital, people were reacting. You know, people were reacting very quickly to the potential severity even of a temperature like that under 102 because other things — other complications could arise. So, it kind of took me back there for a minute. So things like that to do continue to happen. On the other hand, I continue to look forward, you know, with a, hopefully, full recovery.”
Mark and Suzanne say because of their COVID-19 experience, they have had a number of epiphanies.
“Like, my wife can't wait to take me on a plane,” Mark said.
“I cannot wait to get on a plane. And I have a fear of flying,” Suzanne chimed in, with a smile on her face. “And there's my epiphany, but I'm not in a hurry. So we were supposed to go to Italy for our 30th and, you know, he was intubated the day after our 30th. So, I'm like, if not now, when? I mean, once he gets cleared, I think I am really anxious to get going and do stuff. And he might be a little less so. “
Mark isn’t quite there yet.
“We still have things tying us down for months after being out of the hospitals. I still, for example, I'm on nighttime oxygen. My oxygen levels — because my lungs failed so dramatically — my nighttime oxygen levels get way too low, unhealthily low to where it could potentially damage brain function, heart function and a major organ function. So, I'm, for now and for probably a foreseeable future, on nighttime oxygen. So, there's the logistics of that. Kind of keeps you tied down to a certain extent.”
But there is definitely a new zest for this Highlands Ranch couple.
“We are buying more expensive wines,” Mark said.
“We are definitely buying more expensive wines. Why not?” Suzanne added. “I mean, you know, it's kind of like, OK, all right, let's go big. We're being given a second chance, and we know that — we both know that — and we're trying to help out in the community as much as we can. And not just myself. I think he has, obviously, a lot to share.”
Suzanne became a sort of COVID-19 consultant to other spouses while Mark was in the hospital. She was walking others through the painful path she had been though and making personal connections along the way.
Mark has joined a COVID-19 survivors Facebook group, where people like him share on a regular basis.
And they have gone back to Littleton Hospital — back to the ICU where Mark fought to live — and it was emotional.
“I felt more joy being around them, and I was just so grateful. And I just wanted to thank them from the bottom of my heart for all they did for me and all they did for others and all they continue to do because we're not out of this,” Mark said. “And they still had a number of COVID cases in the ICU, and that still, you know, seeing some of the folks in those rooms, that tugs at my heartstrings.”
“Several of the doctors and nurse practitioners and our friends kind of flocked around him. He was like the mayor,” Suzanne said. “I think it is very beneficial for them to see someone walking back in and doing this well. They need that too.”
This couple can’t talk about the medical caregivers without gushing about them.
“The selflessness, the dedication, what they do day in and day out — it's not just a medical situation. They're physically exhausted, drained by putting PPP on, taking it off and putting it on it. People think, ‘oh, they're walking around the ward all day long,’ and that each time they go into a new individual room, they have to put new gear on, and then they have to disrobe on the way out. So, it's over dozens of times every day, and it's exhausting. I could see them sweating under their masks,” Mark said. “The selflessness and, from my perspective, this is just so eye opening. I could never imagine, never, never imagine. And they're dedicated and sincere. It's, you know, it's just, it's the best patriotic service there is right now.”