When asked to describe longtime delivery driver Steven Whitaker, Lake Oswego residents John and Lynne Self mentioned the Tualatin resident's outgoing personality, strapping exterior and penchant for ribbing John about his purchase of yet another golf club.
Though their jovial delivery man's visits never lasted more than a couple minutes, the Selfs always enjoyed them.
So when he didn't show up one day — and many days after — they grew concerned.
Eventually they learned that Whittaker, a 34-year United Parcel Service worker, had nearly died after a bout with COVID-19 in February, requiring a double-lung transplant and the need for extensive rehabilitation and medication. The Selfs and other Lake Oswego neighbors have taken Whitaker's sudden health turn hard, and they've posted signs asking people to donate to multiple fundraisers to help Whitaker pay for his treatment and rehabilitation.
"When the news broke, many people were really concerned about him — genuinely concerned. That says a lot. He's one of those guys (that) does their job, doesn't ask for a whole lot and he touches more lives than I think he realizes," John Self said.
Since starting out in Lake Oswego in 1999 — the city just northwest of where he lives in Tualatin — Whitaker has covered every inch of the town but has spent most of his time in Mountain Park, Westlake, Center Point and Meadows areas.
"I enjoy those areas because the terrain is fairly flat, most of the people are nice and fun to banter with and the roads are well lit and addresses easy to read, which in my world is a big deal," he wrote to Pamplin Media Group via text message.
And neighbors have relished receiving mail from Whitaker — some befriending him. Lake Oswego resident Mark Haleston actually began helping out Whitaker with music videos after the two struck up a conversation while Whitaker dropped off mail. Haleston was impressed by his mailman's musical chops.
"He jumps out of the truck and hands me a CD … I threw it in the player in my car. Much to my surprise it just about blew the speakers out of the car," he said.
And Whitaker, according to his mother Darlyne Aleksich and others who know him, was a paradigm of good health before COVID-19. He didn't drink or smoke, and he woke up at the crack of dawn to lift weights before delivering mail all day. However, after returning from vacation, Whitaker was hospitalized with COVID-19 and transferred to the intensive care unit a few days later. Aleksich wasn't initially concerned when her son got COVID-19, assuming it would be a mild infection. Her mind shifted to extreme anguish when she learned just how debilitating the malady would be.
Along with having the delta variant, Whitaker was diagnosed with a staph infection and bacterial pneumonia. During the next few months, doctors did not expect Whitaker to live and he was put on paralytic medication.
"One time in March, the doctors called us in and said, 'We would be surprised if he lived more than two days.' Other times he was so fragile they couldn't wheel him down the hall for a scan because any exertions would be the end of it," Aleksich said.
She added:"The medics have said if he hadn't been so healthy, he wouldn't have survived."
Whitaker's lungs were so scarred they could barely take in oxygen, which required a transplant he undertook in mid-August. He was transferred out of the ICU weeks later. Whitaker had been at Stanford University preparing for the transplant since late June.
"Physically I have been to hell and back and I'm finally developing some nice forward momentum towards healing, rehabilitating and getting out of here so I can reclaim my life back," Whitaker wrote.
Aleksich noted that Whitaker's medication costs once he returns home could cost around $2,000 a month and that rehabilitation, travel and other expenses could add up — especially since Whitaker won't be able to work. The family has started multiple fundraisers for Whitaker — one through Help Hope Live (which is tax deductible) and another through GoFundMe. So far the two sites have raised around $14,000.
Haleston said he was flabbergasted when he learned the news of Whitaker's bout with COVID-19 and quickly donated to the cause. He also offered to pick him up once he's ready to come back home.
"This is a guy I don't want to lose. He's on the comeback, doing better. He needs to get out of the hospital and into the next stage," he said.
"I'm super grateful for all the people who've rallied behind me and supported me through this rather horrendous journey I've been on," Whitaker wrote. "I'm not out of the woods yet, but I've been blessed with some new lungs and a second chance to be the best man I can be."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.