Vegreville councillor who survived COVID-19 praises Edmonton hospital staff

A town councillor in Vegreville, on the verge of death two weeks ago, is praising nurses and doctors in Edmonton for helping him survive COVID-19. 

'These people were angels,' Jerrold Lemko says of Royal Alex nurses and doctors

Jerrold Lemko, a Vegreville town councillor, spent five days in the Royal Alex Hospital intensive-care unit. (Jerrold Lemko)

A town councillor in Vegreville, on the verge of death two weeks ago, is praising nurses and doctors in Edmonton for helping him survive COVID-19. 

Jerrold Lemko was admitted to the Royal Alexandra Hospital on Dec. 17 and spent five days in the intensive-care unit before being sent to the recovery ward. 

"These people saved my life and I don't know how to ever pay them back for that," Lemko told CBC News in an interview Wednesday. "These people were angels." 

Lemko, 65, said the respiratory and X-ray specialists, physiotherapists and nurses were positive and consistently encouraging.

He even appreciated the doctor who admitted him to the ICU, who explained his condition and told him he could be facing death. 

"He didn't sugar coat anything," Lemko said.

The ICU doctor told Lemko he was receiving the highest level of oxygen possible. 

"He told me the reality of where I was and what could happen in there, and how I would die when the time came, if I couldn't get better." 

After five days hooked up to oxygen and intravenous, doctors moved Lemko to the COVID-19 recovery ward on the fifth floor.

"That moment was a victory," he said, "for not only me but for them as well, because they're the ones who got me there."

Little victories

Once able to walk five kilometres and bike 20 kilometres a day, Lemko said he was reduced to using a walker to make it to the washroom. 

He developed relationships with nurses and patients, including three others in the recovery room who supported each other in baby steps to recovery. 

"We were able to create a bond in that room because we were sharing the same thing — little victories of going to the washroom and giving the thumbs up, if you can believe that." 

When he was discharged on the Dec. 27, he was grateful for the support from the staff.

"The nurses clapping as I was leaving, the doctor waving goodbye," he said. "The nurse said, 'You know, Jerrold, this is a miracle, both for you and for us.' "

Symptoms vary

Like many people with COVID-19, Lemko's symptoms started with a sore throat, runny nose and headache. 

About a week later, those turned into chills, extreme fatigue and difficulty breathing, laying on the couch resting and sleeping most of the time. 

"It was straight downhill," he said. "I was getting weaker and weaker each day."

His wife, Annita Lemko, got tested and received a positive result on Dec. 5. 

She said she had a sore throat, a cough, sinus congestion and a headache.

"It was sort of scary because you don't know what's going to happen and he was just getting weaker and weaker," she said. "It was really hard to watch." 

Annita Lemko says she had a sore throat, cough and headache but the symptoms didn't get worse, like her husband's did. (Google Meet video)

She said she was relieved when the doctor in Vegreville admitted her husband to hospital. 

The Lemkos believe they contracted the virus at the Vegreville hospital while visiting his 85-year-old mother, who's being treated for cancer. 

Lemko is urging Albertans to take the virus seriously and heed public health precautions, practice physical distancing, wear masks and do not gather socially. 

"Don't take this as a fool," he said. "It's a beast, to say the least."