Greg Pierce’s story begins with a long list of accomplishments, including being an Associate Teaching Professor of Finance at Penn State University, University Park Campus. For 30 years, Greg, 68, has helped students get ready for what he calls “the real world of business.” He teaches eight classes per year and enjoys advising students and providing academic and career guidance. He also created a finance website called The Finance Coach that he integrates into his teaching.
Greg’s first love is his family, including his wife Linda and their children, Katie and Mike. Greg and Linda have enjoyed following their children’s activities through the years up and down the east coast and across the country. Greg also follows and loves to attend Penn State University sporting events, his favorites being basketball, baseball and football. He enjoys gardening and working around the house. He and Linda travel often, and they enjoy their beach house in southern New Jersey.
In late November 2020, Greg, Linda and Mike all developed mild cold symptoms. The following day, Linda and Mike both tested positive for COVID-19. Greg, however, was stubborn and insisted that he had a cold.
Fortunately, Penn State decided to hold classes remotely after Thanksgiving, so Greg taught from home. A few days later, he spiked a fever and then started coughing. Over several days, his condition worsened. By the weekend, Greg had difficulty breathing and getting out of bed. Still, it took 24 hours for him to give in to his family’s pleas and agree to go to the emergency room.
They were almost too late. It took nearly an hour to get Greg to the car. When Linda pulled up to the ER entrance, she parked and jumped out to grab a wheelchair. She opened the door, he stood and collapsed onto the sidewalk after taking a single step toward it. A passerby ran for help. A nurse and several other staffers got Greg inside, and that was the last Linda saw of him.
Two hours later, she was notified that Greg was unconscious and on a ventilator. By hour four, she was told his kidneys weren’t functioning and he needed to be sent to a larger hospital immediately for treatment. He was flown by helicopter to Geisinger Medical Center and placed in intensive care.
Unfortunately, Greg experienced additional complications including kidney failure, a blood clot in the lungs and an abnormal heartbeat. He was also diagnosed with critical illness myopathy, a disease of limb and respiratory muscles, and respiratory failure with ventilator dependence caused by COVID-19.
At one point, Linda was told she could have a tracheostomy placed, which came with the risk of Greg never liberating from the ventilator, or “make him comfortable” and wait for the end. Linda chose to give Greg a fighting chance. It was the right choice.
He was hospitalized at Geisinger Medical Center for nearly two months before being stable enough to transfer to Select Specialty Hospital – Danville for extended recovery time.
While at Select Specialty Hospital, Greg shares, “I was unable to breathe and on a ventilator. It felt like drawing air through a coffee stirrer.”
A physician-led team, including therapists, nurses, dietitians and pharmacists created a plan for renewed independence.
Respiratory therapists began attempting ventilator liberation and building lung strength. A combination of breathing exercises, gradually reduced machine settings and hard work freed him from the machine.
Some days were difficult. A lingering fear over the virus’ aftereffects made it seem as if he’d never breathe independently. He wanted to give up, but his respiratory therapist encouraged him to fight. His therapist’s support, along with the hope of getting back to his family, pushed Greg to keep going. Eventually, he liberated from the machine, a big first step.
Speech, occupational and physical therapists also stepped in with mobility and dexterity exercises that would get Greg closer to his goal of going home. Each weekday, they moved through standing and shifting exercises, transferring from one foot to the other to improve balance. Occupational therapists used grasping, gripping and resistance tasks to build skills needed to button shirts, brush teeth and comb hair.
After more than a month at Select Specialty Hospital, Greg was ready for the next step in healing. Linda researched options and chose Penn State Health Rehabilitation Hospital. He shares, “Linda asked a lot of friends and rehab people in State College. And she searched the internet and identified the top four rehab hospitals in our area. Hershey was up there among the top, and I decided I would feel most comfortable there.” Linda also felt it was the right choice for them because she knew Greg would be most comfortable within his beloved Penn State community.
With support from his family, Greg started his rehabilitation program, which included physical, occupational and speech therapy. He set goals of learning to walk, feed himself and breathe normally again. Greg also had his heart set on returning to teaching.
In physical therapy, he started by using the parallel bars to learn how to walk again. “I could only take two steps with all the help they could give,” said Greg. “I didn’t know if I would ever walk again.” His therapists gave him a lot of encouragement throughout this process to keep him motivated and progressing forward. They also showed Greg how to use a ‘table’ walker, which is a special walker that provides platforms for the forearms to rest on. This allows patients who lack hip/trunk control to maintain an upright posture and stability while working on lower extremity. It helped him build confidence to continue in his physical therapy journey. He started with 50 steps and then kept progressing, eventually walking 400 feet with a rolling walker.
Occupational therapists taught Greg how to perform daily activities again. They introduced assistive tools into the sessions such as a finger ladder and table bike to help him accomplish daily living tasks. A finger ladder is a tall, thin device made of wood or metal that is typically mounted on a wall at waist to chest height. It has notches on it that a patient will use to hold on to and “walk” their fingers up the ladder, which helps to build strength in the upper arm and shoulder. Progress is measured by how high a patient can climb over time. A table bike, or upper extremity ergometer, is a simple device that has a cycle wheel and pedals. The patient grasps the pedals and cycles them around, building range of motion and strength in the arms and shoulders. Resistance can be added as the patient gets stronger to build additional strength and demonstrate progress. “I became 100 percent confident that I could go home and do those [daily activities] things,” said Greg.
Greg also worked with speech therapists to build up his voice since his muscles were weak from being on the ventilator. Greg described one of his therapy treatment sessions as a mock lecture where he actually presented a finance talk to the therapists.
Greg believes that both the intense schedule and the team at Penn State Rehabilitation Hospital were keys to his success. He shares, “The therapists really knew their business. It’s not always pleasant. It’s tough. But I could barely sit up when I started and now I can walk.”
Through his rehabilitation journey, Greg learned about himself and what is most important to him, saying he took a lot for granted. He also described how important his family was during his recovery. “I learned how much I love my family,” said Greg. Although visitation was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, his family remained supportive. “We FaceTimed every night for an hour or more. We didn’t miss a night in the five weeks I was in the rehab hospital. They have been my coaches behind the scenes, giving me the inspiration to keep working. Everyone will be together when I go home, and I’m looking forward to pizza with the family."
On the day of discharge, Greg walked independently past members of his rehabilitation team and was greeted with a surprise party hosted by his family in the hospital parking lot. Greg’s children and their families traveled from Cincinnati, Ohio and Doylestown to support Greg and Linda and help them get home safely.