By learning from his care team, Kirk plays an active role in his COVID-19 survival story

Mary Jeanne and Kirk Phillips
Mary Jeanne served as Kirk’s primary caretaker after he was discharged from his month-long hospital stay with COVID-19, and now he’s healthy enough to bike around town again.

When he was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID-19 at age 67, college professor Kirk Phillips became a student again. His lesson was survival.

His University of Iowa Health Care providers used the latest treatments available for COVID-19 care. Kirk did his part by learning from his care team about how he could participate in his own healing. Then, he endured fatigue and shortness of breath to do the work of keeping his body functioning as well as it could while it fought off the virus.

That work included performing simple physical exercises despite his weakness, eating the right foods even when he didn’t feel like eating, and learning how to breathe “like a guppy” to help his body absorb as much oxygen as possible so that he wouldn’t need a ventilator.

After a month-long hospital stay, Kirk was healthy enough to head home in November 2020 to finish his recovery. Today, he’s back to teaching, biking, and leading an active life, even as he continues regular rehabilitation sessions to restore lung function that COVID-19 took away.

“I’m very thankful for the strong clinical expertise of the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics team,” Kirk says.

At the center of an expert COVID-19 care team

As an adjunct associate professor of epidemiology in the UI College of Public Health, Kirk admits he felt a little strange in the role of patient during the pandemic.

“I never thought that I would be on this side of the equation,” Kirk says.

But UI pulmonologist Robert J. Blount, MD, says Kirk arrived at the hospital with an impressive amount of resolve to beat COVID-19.

“What’s amazing about Kirk is his attitude, his drive to do all he could to get back on his feet,” Blount says.

Kirk approached his care the same way he would approach any of his academic research interests—by making sure he understood his condition and his treatments as much as possible. With his wife, Mary Jeanne, a nurse at UI Hospitals & Clinics, helping him consult with his providers on a regular basis, Kirk knew he had an expert care team that was doing everything possible for him.

His treatments included high-flow oxygen through a special nasal device as well as experimental therapies being tested in clinical trials, including the anti-viral drug Remdesivir. He also received high doses of the steroid prednisone to reduce inflammation that threatened to damage his lungs permanently.

Kirk understood that with a new disease like COVID-19, some questions couldn’t be answered, and he says his care team’s honesty was a crucial part of the comfort he felt.

“I was constantly asking questions of the staff, and they were very kind to answer what they knew—and also responsible in answering what they didn’t know,” he says.

‘Breathing like a guppy’

Throughout his hospital stay, Kirk fought to maintain healthy oxygen saturation levels by proning—laying on his stomach to breathe in a way that got the most out of his ailing lungs.

“They taught me how to breathe,” Kirk says. “I called it breathing like a guppy—breathing in through your nose, holding it, and breathing out through your mouth.”

All day and through much of the night, Kirk used this technique to pull in as much oxygen as he could and successfully avoid the ventilator.

“It’s uncomfortable,” he says, “but it kept me alive.”

His nurses also showed him how to use an incentive spirometer, a device that helped him breathe more deeply by showing him how much air he was taking in with each breath.

They also discussed nutrition to offset his weight loss of nearly 40 pounds, and they encouraged him to walk and do other exercises to increase his muscle strength.

“With COVID-19, you’ve got to fight for your life,” Kirk says. “The nurses told me that some patients who refused to do these things, or were too sick to do them, struggled.”

Cutting-edge post-COVID-19 care close to home

Kirk returns for follow-up care regularly to test his lung function. He attends pulmonary rehabilitation therapy sessions three times a week for cardio and strength work.

“I’m going to do that routine for the rest of my life,” he says.

His breathing isn’t perfect, but it’s much better. He still wears an oxygen concentrator during those rehab sessions and when he’s out on his bike.

Lingering numbness in his fingers and toes reminds him that COVID-19 is still having an impact on his body.

But Kirk knows that he has access to UI Health Care’s Post COVID-19 Clinic, one of the few clinics in the nation dedicated solely to caring for patients who had a COVID-19 diagnosis, staffed with expert pulmonologists like Blount who are finding new and better ways to provide the care that COVID-19 survivors need.

Kirk says Blount’s commitment has been apparent throughout his COVID-19 experience.

“He called me during his vacation to interpret special tests and treatments,” Kirk says. “He was open to suggestions for experimental treatment—for example, high doses of prednisone to address inflammation. I’m very thankful for all his clinical expertise and his personable approach.”