One Year Later: Michigan Medicine’s First COVID-19 Patient

March 10, 2021 8:44 AM

Paul DeWyse reflects on being the hospital’s first patient, feeling like a social pariah and how precious life is.

This article is part of a series marking one year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Read more articles on the coronavirus from the Michigan Health and Michigan Health Lab blogs.

Allison Weber, RN, remembers her sixth floor charge nurse, Jen, telling her the hospital’s first COVID-19 patient may have just arrived and that there were people downstairs keeping him isolated, trying to rule him out for the contagious illness.

“I didn’t even know what it was at the time,” she recalls. “When she told me what COVID-19 was, my head started spinning. I had only been a nurse for a year and a half or two years at the time.”

And Weber wasn’t the only one with growing anxiety.

Downstairs, “Wayne County man with history of domestic travel”, Paul DeWyse, was just told his mysterious sickness wasn’t the common cold or flu.

“They told me they were going to test me for COVID-19, but ‘there was a 99.9% chance I wouldn’t have it’,” says DeWyse. “But the test came back positive and everyone was completely stumped.”

All of a sudden, the world seemed to stop spinning. He knew as a double lung transplant recipient his symptoms could very well result in mortality, since he took a cocktail of immunosuppressive meds to keep his body from rejecting his new lungs.

“It was a harrowing journey for my wife and daughters, before my donor gave me a second chance at life with my new lungs in 2018. My lungs were functioning at 15% capacity before the transplant,” says DeWyse. “Now, I’m immunocompromised and in the hospital with COVID-19, and all I knew about COVID-19 was that it was a virus that could cause illness so serious it results in death.”

He felt guilty for everything his family had to go through with him.

Alone in an isolation room on the corner of the sixth floor, DeWyse turned on his TV to find reporters from every news station offering their speculations about the unidentified COVID-19 patient.

They didn’t know they were talking about DeWyse, now 58, from Livonia. But DeWyse knew they were talking about him.

Wayne County residents started demanding more information from the governor: Where did this person live? Where did they work? What hospital were they staying at?

When reporters heard the COVID-19 patient may be at Michigan Medicine, they gathered outside the hospital.

“I could see them from my window,” DeWyse recalls. “It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe. I wasn’t just alone, away from any of my friends and family, but I felt like a social pariah.”

"It’s a small price to pay for the gift of life."
Paul DeWyse, Michigan Medicine’s first COVID-19 patient.

DeWyse’s nurse, Weber, remembers those first few days in the isolation room vividly.

“I could tell he was nervous, but he wouldn’t try to show that when we went into his room,” Weber recalls. “I remember him asking about his dog, Jazz, and if she could get sick from COVID-19. I knew he was a really good person after that.”

Weber remembers people looking through DeWyse’s door at him, like he was an experiment in a cage. Before one of her shifts, she ran to a convenience store to get some snacks, Gatorade, deodorant and magazines.

“I wanted to help him feel more human when the world wasn’t treating him like one,” she says. “He really was the best patient a nurse could have to be the first patient.”

Looking back

After three different intravenous antibiotics, around-the-clock pain meds and a lot of sleep, DeWyse was discharged to finish recovering at home after 11 days in the hospital. He never needed a ventilator.

When he first arrived at the hospital less than two weeks ago, he was the only patient with COVID-19 there. As he was leaving his room to go home, he says he’ll never forget seeing the Regional Infectious Containment Unit, which wasn’t open when he was admitted, full with sick patients now.

With no significant lingering side effects, DeWyse felt fully recovered after a month. He went on to have a great summer with his wife and three daughters, biking, kayaking and playing racquetball.

“It’s crazy to think about how before my transplant, I struggled to walk or even talk,” DeWyse recalls.

But soon after those hot summer months passed, another health scare struck.

After a major gallbladder attack, DeWyse was brought back to Michigan Medicine to have the small organ removed.

“His recurrent abdominal issues over the past year, including in the colon and gallbladder, are likely exacerbated by his immunosuppressive medications,” says Kevin Chan, M.D., DeWyse’s pulmonologist. “Despite these setbacks, he continues to remain positive and is forever paying it forward to the community by increasing organ donation awareness.

Although the removal of his gallbladder called for another lengthy in-patient stay for DeWyse, he says it’s the price you pay for having a transplant.

“It’s a small price to pay for the gift of life,” he adds.

“Paul is a unique individual who has an outstandingly optimistic attitude, which is imperative for patients who have received a solid organ transplant,” says Chan.

After being discharged, DeWyse faced a long, painful recovery journey ahead. According to him, though, that’s just another obstacle for him to overcome.

“Life is full of challenges, but you need to remain resilient,” he says. “Follow doctors’ orders, do things that make you happy, stay active and be willing to adapt to change.”

“Paul is the epitome of living life to the fullest,” says Weber. “He felt lucky to get his new lungs and he’ll live for every moment, even more so now after fighting off COVID-19.