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Muncie man home after 158-day COVID-19 battle

Jeff Smith says faith, family helped him through
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Posted at 12:05 AM, Jan 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-06 16:34:14-05

MUNCIE — When Jeff Smith entered Ball Memorial Hospital in July, the temperature outside was 90 degrees.

Now, 158 days later, temperatures are in the teens and Smith is back at home with his wife of 30 years, Leslie.

The family took a trip to Arizona in July - visiting popular attractions like the Grand Canyon and exploring Sedona and Phoenix.

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Jeff and Leslie Smith smile in an undated photo. The couple has been married for 30 years.
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The Smith family poses in front of an Arizona cactus during their July 2021 vacation. When they returned to Indiana, Jeff spent 158 battling COVID-19.

"I'm Clark W. Griswold when I go on these trips; I tried to pack everything into a week," Jeff said. "I have strong lungs, I was very active before this happened."

Jeff and Leslie were not vaccinated. Jeff tells WRTV they are not anti-vaccine but weren't sure about it and wanted to see the data.

Jeff says he started to feel sick on the plane ride home from Arizona and after testing positive for COVID-19 and feeling worse each day, he went to the emergency room at Ball Memorial on July 26.

"That was on a Monday and then by that Wednesday, he was on a ventilator," Leslie said.

That Wednesday would lead to stays at multiple hospitals across Central Indiana.

On August 1, after being on a ventilator, he was flown to Ascension St. Vincent in Indianapolis and put on ECMO to help clean his lungs.

MORE: University of Iowa explains what ECMO does

Leslie and the couple's daughter Makenzie got to Indianapolis first.

"It was so surreal, you know, just like a dream ... just watching a helicopter come in and knowing that your loved one is on it," Leslie said.

"At the time, I was down at St. [Vincent], I was considered to be the sickest COVID patient that they had and that's not something I wanted for me," Jeff said. "This virus is vicious, it's attacking everything and the sad part about it is people are running around [and] not taking it serious."

Jeff came off ECMO in September.

"It was God, no doubt in my mind. I know that one day ... just like that the numbers on the ECMO machine started getting better," Leslie said. "The numbers on the ECMO she just started dropping, dropping, dropping. And whereas like for two or three weeks, they just kind of held steady, they might get better, but then the next day they go backward."

As his condition continued to improve, Jeff returned to Ball Memorial for care and rehab and met patient care assistant Hannah Kirts. At first, Jeff couldn't get out of bed on his own.

"I love being able to see how people come to us and watch them go home," Kirts said. “He was very motivated and that's the biggest thing I can say - he was so motivated to get home."

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Jeff Smith walks with a walker with the care team at IU Health Memorial Hospital. Smith spent 158 days in multiple hospitals battling COVID-19.

Day 158, which was also New Year's Eve, was Jeff's homecoming day. Hospital staff lined the hallway for the "COVID walk" as he was discharged. As Jeff was pushed down the hallway, Leslie was by his side, holding a poster that said "Happy Discharge Day" with staff signatures and well wishes on the other side

"I almost felt like that I was a celebrity walking on the red carpet. They play over the intercom "Here Comes the Sun" and it's real emotional. A lot of people are crying along with your family and friends that are there," Jeff said. "I was bawling my eyes out."

"You don't really think about all the people that really are, you know, standing behind you, praying for you, supporting you, so it was really special," Leslie said.

Jeff Smith's COVID walk

Kirts was there for the walk, clapping for Jeff and wishing him well.

"Every single time I see somebody walk out that door with that song playing, it just makes me so happy to know that we could help at least one more person," Kirts said.

Jeff is continuing with rehab and walks with the assistance of a walker but is not on any supplemental oxygen. The couple credits faith with carrying them through their darkest days.

"My work is not done, but it's good to be home," Jeff said. "[Faith] is a very integral part of why I'm still alive."

Jeff has now gotten his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“That's the last part really of my rehab is to get stronger, to get out and tell my story to people and preach - get the vaccine."