Jody Demling’s harrowing COVID-19 journey finding an inspiring end

Jody Demling covering Kentucky Derby training in May of 2019. (Eric Crawford photo)

Jody Demling knows he is lucky to be here. Lucky to be doing interviews (even if it is strange being the one answering questions, not asking them). Lucky to be able to talk for a half-hour without getting winded, though a home health nurse stands nearby just in case. After Demling recovered from a harrowing experience with COVID-19, a doctor showed him the chest X-ray from when he arrived in the emergency room, shook his head, and said, “I’m not sure how you’re still here.”

Emergency medical technicians arrived at his home and carried him out – he couldn’t walk – wearing what looked to him like hazmat suits. In the ER, they put him on 100% oxygen. The next morning, he could tell from the doctor’s demeanor and tone that things weren’t good.

If you’re reading this, chances are you know Jody. Or have met him. Or have talked to him on the radio or in person. Few people in Louisville are as well known — with an emphasis on the known.

He’s one of us. And his experience could’ve been any one of ours. He has no idea where he contracted the coronavirus. He wasn’t reckless. He and his family had been social distancing. The night he fell ill, he and his family had gone to get takeout, went to see his mother and talked to her from a distance. That simple act might have saved her.

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to see a loved one just for a moment.

He got home that night and felt chilled. He had a fever. His wife, Angela, moved quickly, keeping the kids at a distance and moving herself into a room downstairs. It was a Wednesday night. By Saturday, he was heavily fatigued. On Monday and Tuesday, he still had symptoms but thought he was all right. By Wednesday night, he was coughing. The next morning, he couldn’t catch his breath and struggled to talk. When the ambulance arrived, he couldn’t hug his wife and kids. It pulled off, and he left, not sure when — or if — he would be back home.

They did everything right. And it still almost wasn’t enough.

“We were lucky to get me to the ER in the time that we did,” Demling said.

In the hospital, he was put on hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that seemed to help his symptoms for a short time. But by Friday morning, the news wasn’t good.

“The doctor met with me, and I could tell by the look on her face that it was bad,” Demling said. “She said, ‘We’re going to be preventative and do this now, and hopefully it will help down the road. She said, ‘We’re going to put you on a ventilator.’ So, I got a chance to call my wife, to talk to her, to talk to the kids a little bit. I called them twice and I don’t remember the second time. And that’s when things for me start getting a little blurry.

“I think, more than anything, I had a lot on my mind,” he added. “I could see on the doctor’s face that it wasn’t good, that I was going to be on the ventilator for a while, and it was serious.”

The virus had given Demling pneumonia in both lungs. Doctors were hoping that, by letting the ventilator do the work, his blood oxygen would improve, his organs might stay out of danger and his body would be able to fight off the virus and clear his lungs. Demling understood what the doctor was saying but was breaking down inside.

This, folks, is about as sick as you can get. For six days, he laid strapped to the bed and unconscious. A nurse held his phone up to his ear to let his wife and family talk to him every day. He doesn’t remember, but he believes it helped.

At one point, his priest, Father Bill Bowling of Holy Trinity, performed the Anointing of the Sick via his iPad, while Demling’s family watched on Bowling’s phone.

Thousands of people prayed for him daily. Even so, doctors didn’t start to wean Demling off the sedative until the following Wednesday night and didn’t take him off the ventilator until Thursday morning.

“I know now, it’s terrifying to think that I was pretty close to not waking up at one point, to not being able to do this interview, to not being able to tell my wife I love her,” Demling said. “But it’s also, for some strange reason, and I couldn’t at the time tell you, but now, knowing that they talked to me, knowing that I talked to my priest, knowing that I had so many people praying for me and in my corner, when I woke up that night, I was still on the ventilator, still strapped down, but I felt a calm. Like I’m going to be OK now. I think it was everything that was happening while I was on the ventilator, with everybody else, while I was out, that made me feel that way.”

When he finally looked at his phone, Demling had more than 500 text messages and so many Twitter and Facebook messages that he still hasn’t looked at them all.

The Louisville football staff was a constant presence, reaching out to his family during the ordeal. Demling heard from Rick Pitino, Bobby Petrino, Denny Crum and every current head coach at U of L. UK fans from around the state were sending prayers via social media.

“I get emotional now pretty easy,” Demling said. “One of the more emotional times that I got in this thing was when I first got my phone, and I saw how many messages, and I thought, ‘Holy cow.’ I was just blown away. And then I went to put my phone away, and my Twitter mentions popped up, because my hands weren’t really working, and as I put my phone down my Twitter mentions just came up on my phone, and the first one I saw was from Corey Reed, whose dad had just died from COVID. Just the nicest message. And I had talked to him maybe eight or 10 times, and here he is, reaching out to me, after just losing his dad to the same thing. I was so touched by that.”

Demling still had work to do. He had to regain his strength. His final test was a six-minute walk in the hospital. It sounds easy, unless you’ve been through what he went through.

“I had to walk for six minutes … and maintain that blood oxygen level,” he said. “When I sat down and looked on my finger and that oxygen thing said 92, it was one of the best moments that I can remember in a long, long time for me.”

But the best was yet to come.

“Later in the day when I’m being released, doors open in the elevator and they did the clap out for me, personnel from the hospital and they’re clapping and cheering and screaming,” he said. “That was amazing for me, and I almost forgot that I had one more turn. And when I turned the corner and saw Angela and Tanner and Cassidy there, it was so emotional. It was so awesome. I had not seen them for two weeks. To me that was the hardest part of this whole thing. When I took that turn and they were right there, it was the best moment that I can ever remember.”

The work isn’t over for Demling. Just getting up and taking a shower wears him out to the point of needing a nap. A day ago, he walked two-tenths of a mile. A big deal in his recovery. He’s still on oxygen but hopes to be off it in a couple of weeks. He doesn’t know when life will get back to normal. And doctors can’t tell him much about the long-term effects, or even if he could get the virus again.

When he first got sick, lying in bed, he said he watched news channels nonstop, learning all he could about the virus. These days, he watches less.

“It is emotional,” he said, “and I do see all the statistics.”

And once you’re one of those statistics, it’s hard to imagine the breadth of this, that each one can be a story like his, or one even worse.

He also has trouble understanding some of the things he sees on the news now.

“It’s scary,” he said. “I am a real live product of this happening to me. I’m lucky and fortunate to still be here. And we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary or go anywhere wild and crazy. I didn’t even know I had it. That’s the scary part about it to me still. … It’s just one of those things where you just don’t know, and that’s the hard part for me now watching all this stuff, seeing both sides. Seeing people that say, let’s not wear a mask or do this, it just makes me mad and upset. If you really want to go through this, you don’t. Trust me. It’s been a terrible month.”

A terrible month, with an inspiring ending.