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COVID-19 nearly killed Rick Barde. Now he hopes others learn from his horrific journey

"It's been a hell of a ride," said Rick Barde, lying in a bed, an oxygen tube meandering out of his nose.

The last two months are a patchwork of foggy memories, marked by stints of half consciousness.

Barde hasn't been home since mid-January, when paramedics rushed him to the hospital after his wife found him struggling to breathe. The Southwest Portlander recalls driving himself to a local Zoom Care office for a persistent cough, or what Barde calls "the crud" that crept in about a week into the new year.

COURTESY PHOTO: JULI REHMER - Rick Barde, shown here at OHSU, spent eight weeks in the hospital battling COVID-19 before being transfered to a rehabilitation center.Barde estimates it was Jan. 12 when the test at the healthcare office confirmed "the crud" in his chest was COVID-19. His wife, Juli Rehmer, also tested positive.

"Then January 13 or 14, she came upstairs in the morning to check on me and I was incoherent," Barde said. "My breath was very labored, gargling, I couldn't answer her questions. I looked at the phone like I had never seen a phone before."

Rehmer called 911.

"In came these dudes in hazmat suits," Barde recalled. "They took me over to (Legacy) Meridian Park."

Barde, 60, was soon transferred to Oregon Health & Science University, where he was hooked up to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO machine.

Before long, Barde was on life support in a medically-induced coma while his body struggled to fight off the virus.

COURTESY PHOTO: JULI REHMER - Juli Rehmer (left) and Rick Barde in a photo before the pandemic hit. Rehmer and Barde both contracted COVID-19, but had drastically different reactions. Barde nearly died, despite being otherwise healthy.Barde is a retired Portland school teacher. A lifelong Southwest Portland resident, Barde graduated from Wells-Barnett High School (formerly Wilson High) and spent 30 years teaching in Portland Public Schools before he retired in 2020. The last 22 years of his career were at Bridlemile Elementary School, where he taught third and fourth grade a mere mile from where he grew up.

As a teacher, humor and pranks were his signature, allowing him to break the ice and connect with kids. But his battle to stay alive was nothing short of harrowing.

He developed pneumonia while in the hospital, had tubes running out of every vein in sight, had his lung intubated and a tracheal intubation that prevented him from speaking shortly after he came out of his coma.

"All the drugs they put you under really mess you up physically and emotionally," he said. "I had some horrible dreams and there was one point, where maybe I was fairly lucid, I was saying to myself, 'I can't do this. Let me go,' and then something else popped up and said, 'no you need to fight this.'"

Barde is still coping with the post-traumatic stress of spending months in an intensive care unit, suffering vivid nightmares and waking up to find his body had become "a human voodoo doll" with tubes and needles.

Barde spent his 60th birthday, as well as he and Rehmer's first wedding anniversary in the hospital. The couple was married in March 2020, shortly before the pandemic dramatically transformed society.

"We were being very safe. We didn't go to any gatherings or go out," Rehmer said, retracing she and her husband's life before the couple got sick.

Rehmer works in the floral department at a Fred Meyer grocery store. She said she rarely comes in close contact with customers, or other employees. When she tested positive around the same time as her husband, she suffered mild flu-like symptoms. Her positive test meant she couldn't go see Barde in the hospital for more than a week.

She's still in shock at how quickly the virus ravaged her husband's body.

"He'd never smoked a day in his life," she said. "He had no underlying conditions. Every organ in his body was healthy."

Still, his lungs took a big hit. Rehmer said when paramedics arrived, they knew he was running out of time.

As Barde struggled to stay alive for nearly eight weeks, his former students were rooting for him to pull through. They sent cards and well wishes. Neighbors, friends, family and those who Barde taught as children all created a groundswell of support.

COURTESY PHOTO: JULI REHMER - Rick Barde, shown here at OHSU, spent eight weeks in the hospital battling COVID-19 before being transfered to a rehabilitation center."The outreach of former students, families with notes and cards and Facebook messages — I realize that my village is way bigger than I ever thought it was," Barde said, choking back tears from his recovery room at Robison Jewish Health Center, where he's been for the last week.

A crowd funding campaign established for Barde through GoFundMe has raked in over $24,000 to help with medical bills and expenses.

It wasn't just former students and parents supporting him. As reported in an OHSU news story, Barde's care team of doctors and nurses sported "Barde strong" masks and provided comfort and encouragement. His tenure as a local educator often means few degrees of separation. Both OHSU admitting physician Dr. Matthew Drake and hospitalist Dr. Stephanie Halvorson have children who attended Bridlemile Elementary. Halvorson's children had Barde as their third grade teacher, the university hospital media team noted.

"To be honest, I was frightened for him," Dr. Halvorson said in the OHSU news interview. "He was really sick when he came here. But he's progressed so far, and I'm very hopeful."

When Barde was notified he was ready to leave OHSU to begin recovery, he said the staff who helped keep him alive lined the hall and had a small parade for him.

"You develop relationships with those folks and I know they don't have as many successes," Barde said. "Mine being a feel good story, I know it was probably more of a success to them."

Barde isn't the first to spend nearly two months in an ICU with COVID-19. Last May, OHSU highlighted the recovery of 48-year-old Maria Nevarez of Washington, who spent 58 days in the hospital.

As of March 23, Oregon reported 2,367 people had died from the coronavirus, statewide, out of 162,016 documented infections.

Being able to recover at the Robison Jewish Health rehabilitation center is significant for Barde, whose mother has a wing of the center named after her. It's also where she spent her final days of life.

Now, Barde is trying to settle into the next phase of his own life.

It won't be easy. Since being admitted to the hospital in January, he's lost 50 pounds. Two and a half months later, Barde still relies on an oxygen tube. He can stand for limited amounts of time, but each day, he gets closer to leaving the rehabilitation center.

"I was as close to gone as you can get. Now I can walk down the halls. My oxygen usage is down to barely nothin'. I didn't have any cognition loss, which is something people seem to have," Barde said during a Zoom interview from his recovery room on March 19.

The things he's most looking forward to about going home? His dog, which he affectionately calls a "labraJewdle," a play on the labradoodle's breed and Barde's Jewish family line, and food from Din Tai Fung, one of his favorite restaurants.

Barde said his mission is to give back to the hospital that saved his life. He plans to come back and talk to other survivors, to provide encouragement and empathy for their difficult journey. More immediately, he hopes his experience is a cautionary tale for others.

"COVID is real. COVID is so very real," he said. "Go wash those hands, wear those masks, even if there are vaccines getting us there."


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