Waltham postal worker who conquered COVID-19 welcomed home with drive-by parade

WALTHAM, Mass. — It is the pandemic version of a welcome home party. Dozens of cars, pick-ups, and even a postal vehicle drove by Bob Johnson’s Waltham house Monday, horns blasting, to welcome the husband and father back from a long battle with COVID-19.

“I had no idea any of this was going to happen,” he said. “I was expecting just to go home and that was it.”

In late March, the otherwise healthy postal worker developed a fever and a mild headache. Those symptoms persisted for about a week. "And I was told to just stay home," he said. "Don't go around anybody."

But the following week, things got worse.

“I started getting a sore throat and a cough, also,” Bob recalled. At his doctor’s urging, he drove himself to Newton-Wellesley Hospital: “I was expecting to go home that day.”

He wound up not going home for more than five weeks. When his blood oxygen level was measured, using a device placed on the fingers called a pulse oximeter, the reading so alarmed doctors that he was admitted. "They found out I had pneumonia," Bob said. "They said they had to put me in a coma for a week."

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Bob actually had COVID-19 pneumonia -- and as has been true for some other cases, he was presenting for medical care at a point when his body was starved for oxygen. Normal pulse oximeter values are 95-100% -- with anything under 90% a reason for concern. Bob said his was in the 60% range.

Bob’s coma was medically induced using drugs so that doctors could place him on a ventilator. He stayed on the assistive breathing device for two weeks.

Having survived COVID-19, his ordeal wasn’t over. “I had no idea how hard it would be just to walk,” Bob said. “First time I got up I had to sit right back down because I was just so weak.”

At Spaulding Hospital’s Outpatient Center in Cambridge, Bob continued his recovery. “I’d work with a walker. Take a few steps. Relax and then every day just do more and more. Until eventually I didn’t need the walker.”

Monday, he was first wheeled out of Spaulding -- and then, triumphantly, to applause, Bob stood up and walked to a waiting car.

"I just want to say thank you to everyone at Newton-Wellesley. All the doctors, nurses. Keeping me alive, taking care of me, "Bob said. He also thanked the nurses and therapists at Spaulding for helping him gain his strength back.

“I can’t thank them all enough. To me, they’re all heroes.”

But it was Bob Johnson who was greeted like a hero during the drive-by welcome home. His victory over COVID-19 a much-appreciated bit of happy news in a hard, unprecedented time.

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