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Down, but not out

After 62 days in the hospital, a COVID-19 patient goes home.

Article Author: Kristi Tucker

Article Date:

Josh and Ashleigh Atkinson with their daughters
Josh Atkinson stands alongside his wife, Ashleigh, and their two young daughters.

A poignant recording

If you called Josh Atkinson's office number as recently as mid-September, his friendly voicemail informed you he would be back in the office on July 24. It's haunting when you know his story. On July 13, Joshua was admitted to Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville with mild symptoms of COVID-19 – shortness of breath and nausea, as well as low (and dropping) oxygen levels. His care team estimated he'd be in the hospital for about a week, so he recorded his voicemail from his hospital bed.

Four days later, his symptoms worsened and he was admitted to the Baptist Jacksonville Intensive Care Unit (ICU). His care team observed that his oxygen levels were too low, he was delirious, and he couldn't breathe. He wouldn't leave for another two months.

'We almost lost him'

During Atkinson's time in the ICU, he had to be intubated, placed on a feeding tube, and had five chest tubes placed in him to keep his lungs – so frail from COVID-19 pneumonia that they had collapsed six times – inflated. His wife, Ashleigh, was called in five times when doctors believed Josh was close to death. During one of those moments, she was told a double lung transplant might be the only thing that could save her husband. Each time, he rallied.

"It was an emotional roller coaster," she said. "One day he was improving, the next day he was bad. I had to stay behind a window [to protect me] except for two of the worst times when they thought he was going to die. It's an awful situation to be in. I prayed a lot."

Having seen a lot of COVID-19 patients in the ICU over the past 18 months, Caryn Parkhurst, RN, nurse manager, describes Atkinson with a touch of amazement in her voice, "Thirty-three years old, healthy weight and no history of medical problems...then to see him like this. We thought we were going to lose him several times, but he kept fighting."

Atkinson has said he can't remember any of his stay in the Baptist Jacksonville ICU, and he credits the Lord, his wife, his two daughters and the medical staff for helping him fight.

"Josh had a tremendous team of respiratory therapists, pharmacists, nurses and more who worked very hard for him," said Eddy Gutierrez, MD, a critical care specialist. "Seeing a healthy 33-year-old suffering to this extent was heartbreaking for all of us."

A cautionary tale

The Atkinsons didn't get a COVID-19 vaccine before his illness.

Josh Atkinson said, "I didn't see the need to get a vaccine. I thought it would be like the flu, and if I got it, I'd be sick a few days and then be ready to go home. I also felt it was affecting only older adults. But, the doctors said I caught the delta variant, and patients are younger now."

Ashleigh Atkinson agreed, "I was breastfeeding, and we were outside the age range." It was during one of her visits to her husband's bedside that she changed her mind.

"I was praying over Josh and it came to me that the vaccine couldn't cause me any more pain than this experience was causing me," she said. "That was enough to convince me to get [vaccinated]."

The Atkinsons' experience also convinced all of their friends and family to get the vaccine, and sparked an influx among the residents in Coffee County, Georgia, their previous hometown. Josh Atkinson plans to get the vaccine when he can (anyone recovering from COVID-19 needs to wait 90 days from the first onset of symptoms to get their first shot).

'He's family now'

With a lot of skilled medical care, prayers from friends and family, and his fighting spirit, Atkinson did something rare for someone with this severe a case of COVID-19 – he went home. After 62 days in the hospital, 58 of them in ICU, Atkinson left the hospital to fanfare usually reserved for a celebrity red carpet event.

Balloons and signs lined his walk. Flashbulbs popped. His wife, two young daughters, nurses, nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, and doctors smiled, clapped and cheered.

"To see him go home is a miracle," said Parkhurst.

Maria Lucas, RN, an assistant nurse manager in the ICU who had become close with the family during Atkinson's stay, said, "It was emotional for the entire team. He's family now."

The Atkinsons agree. "We had both our daughters at Baptist, and they took such good care of my husband. When I went to see Josh, the nurses hugged me and cried with me. They were more than just doctors and nurses, they were friends."

"I couldn't ask for better medical care. If I ever needed an ICU again, I'd choose them, but I really don't want to have to see them again," Josh said with a smile.

Dr. Gutierrez agreed, "I feel the same way. I don't want to see him again unless it's running into him at the store or something."


Atkinson is going through outpatient rehab, and his wife, an occupational therapist, is helping him at home. His personal goal is to increase his endurance and strength. His first week home he was only able to walk 100 feet before needing a rest, and small activities, like rolling over in bed, were difficult.

"The little stuff people take for granted is hard," he said, though he's encouraged that the doctors and physical therapists in the hospital believe he's improving faster than the norm.

"Josh's dedication, determination and faith have made all the difference in his recovery," said Jennifer Fulton, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of Critical Care Services at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville. "A lot of patients in his situation get hopeless. If you tell them they need to get out of bed and walk around, they don't want to. Josh would ask if he could walk a little further. He's facing a lot of recovery, but he's ahead of the curve."

After hearing his story, not too many people would doubt he will stay ahead.

COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your family from the virus, reduce community spread and help prevent new variants from emerging. Visit Baptist Health's COVID-19 Information Center or call our Community Nurse Line at 904.302.5050 for questions about the virus, or visit baptistjax.com/covid19vaccine for more information on vaccines.

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