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Hamilton COVID-19 survivor discharged from St. Joseph’s Hospital after 41 days

Helen Keene was discharged from St. Joseph's Hospital after spending 41 days in the COVID-19 unit, fighting for her life. St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton

A survivor of COVID-19 is celebrating her discharge from St. Joseph’s Hospital with words of gratitude for the health-care workers who took care of her.

Helen Keene, 71, was in hospital for 41 excruciating days after being admitted with severe respiratory difficulties and a fever while living at Cardinal Retirement Residence — the site of one of Hamilton’s worst outbreaks.

READ MORE: Hamilton has 12 new COVID-19 cases, almost 8,000 tests completed in long term care homes

Keene’s background includes being a caregiver herself, having worked at Heritage Green Nursing Home for 12 years, and caring for her husband as he was dying of pulmonary fibrosis.

“It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was in trouble,” said Keene of her first symptoms, during an interview on Global News Radio 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly Show.

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“It started with a really, really severe cough. I could not talk for two minutes without coughing, or having a coughing spell.”

Although she self-isolated in her room, the cough worsened and she developed a fever. Keene said she dreaded going to the hospital, but with a history of open-heart surgery and other health complications leading to hospitalizations, she knew it had to happen — not only for herself but to protect the other residents at Cardinal.

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Due to her medical history, Keene was being closely watched by staff and was on a heart monitor for about two weeks. During that time, she used FaceTime and phone calls to keep in touch with friends and family, including her granddaughter, who had just given birth to a little girl.

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READ MORE: 5 apps to help families stay in touch and on task

That family connection was essential, Keene said, especially when she reached her lowest point, emotionally. She heard a hospital worker talking about spending time with their father, who was dying of pulmonary fibrosis — the same illness that claimed her husband’s life.

“I lost it,” said Keene. “I think I cried the whole day.”

“I just thought to myself, ‘my goodness, here I am – a little piece of sand on the beach. Just such a speck in the whole tapestry of this COVID-19 thing that’s happening.’ But it’s personal for you. And every single person who has had it is dealing with it, is being affected by it – it’s personal for them.”

She tested negative for the virus last Tuesday and it was a moment of cautious optimism for her, until the results of a second test came back positive.

“I was very beaten down, I felt very lost. I felt very alone.”

“Then over the intercom, comes this beautiful, beautiful song by Westlife, called ‘I’ll See You Again’, which has been my go-to whenever I feel low and missing my husband.”

Hearing that song, and knowing that the nurses and hospital staff were looking after more than just her physical health, lifted her spirits, Keene said

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“That’s what I am so grateful for, is they made it personal. They looked after my emotional status quo, as well as my physical condition.”

On Wednesday, everything changed. Keene was tested again, and received two subsequent negative results. She was free of the virus and could finally leave the hospital.

It was a moment Keene described as “surreal,” and one that St. Joe’s captured on video and posted to their social media accounts.

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As she was pushed down the hallway in a wheelchair, met with applause from the staff who had been working to help her fight the virus, Keene said she was overcome with emotion.

“I felt I should have been the one applauding them.”

She said it’s fitting that she was released from hospital in the middle of National Nursing Week.

READ MORE: ‘Truly heroes’: Tributes pour in for doctors, nurses fighting coronavirus pandemic

“These people that come into work every day to look after the elderly … young, old, it doesn’t matter, but they are putting their lives on the line. And a lot of times, they don’t get the recognition that they should get.”

“This is a time where we really need to focus on supporting them too. And being there for their needs as well.”

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Keene is now one of 375 people in Hamilton who has recovered, or is on the way to recovering from COVID-19. There have been 25 people in the city who have died as a result of the virus, including nine at Cardinal Retirement Residence.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Navigating grief and mourning during a global pandemic

Those are the cases that remind Keene how much worse it could have been.

“I think I feel the worst for people out there who have lost loved ones through this pandemic. Because they couldn’t be with their loved ones during those moments where they were letting go.”