Hamilton

Hamilton drummer Gene Champagne of Teenage Head, Killjoys on ventilator with COVID-19

Hamilton drummer Gene Champagne, who performs with Canadian rock bands including Teenage Head, is unconscious and on a ventilator in an intensive-care unit battling COVID-19, his wife Julie says. "It felt like a shock," she said Monday.

52-year-old's dog has been sleeping on the musician's pillow every night

Gene Champagne, 52, is the drummer for Teenage Head, the Killjoys and Tongue Fu. He also fronts The Un-Teens. His wife, Julie Champagne, says he is in a Burlington, Ont., hospital's ICU fighting pneumonia caused by COVID-19. (Gene Champagne/Facebook.)

Prominent musician Gene Champagne, a drummer from Hamilton who performs with Teenage Head and other rock bands, is on a ventilator in an intensive-care unit battling COVID-19.

The 52-year-old's wife, Julie Champagne, said he has been on the ventilator at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ont., since Thursday as a "last resort."

In a phone interview Monday morning, she said: "He's heavily sedated, he's not conscious and we don't know the end in sight, unfortunately."

Gene also plays for Canadian bands the Killjoys and Tongue Fu, and fronts his own group, The Un-Teens.

Julie is optimistic her husband will pull through, but she and their roughly year-old dog, Figgy, are both staying in their Stoney Creek home, missing Gene.

"Figgy sleeps on his pillow at night. That's a new thing ... I know that's her way of telling me she's missing him," she said.

Champagne with wife Julie with their dog Figgy. (Submitted by Leigh Johnston)

"She does still look for him in the house. He would come home from work for lunchtime every day, and she's a bit out of sorts because he's not here."

Julie said she and Gene haven't flocked to stores and restaurants over the past year because "we thought it was too soon. We didn't want to chance it. And it happened anyway.

"It felt like a shock  ... we were pretty fortunate up until now."

Teenage Head posted about its drummer on Facebook.

"Gene's wife Julie sends hugs from both of them for all the loving support and good vibes they've received during this difficult time, and apologizes for not being able to keep up with the overwhelming response they've received," the band wrote.

The Killjoys tweeted late Monday asking fans to continue to have good thoughts.

"Pulling for you, brother," the band said.

Family hopes people see COVID-19 is real

Julie said Gene fell ill two weeks ago, through his full-time job outside music that involves transportation and logistics. Little else is known about how he got the virus.

He initially tested negative for COVID-19, but as his fever, chills, body aches, lack of appetite and other symptoms worsened, Julie said, he took another test that came back positive.

Julie said she's avoided getting COVID-19 by distancing while at home together.

As Gene's condition deteriorated, Julie worried he had a chest infection. He ended up in Joseph Brant Hospital, and tests confirmed he had pneumonia because of COVID-19.

The couple stayed away from shopping and restaurants during COVID, Julie Champagne says. 'We didn't want to chance it. And it happened anyway.' (Submitted by Gord Hawkins)

"The whole time he was in hospital, he was on oxygen and they had to keep increasing it ... I was able to see him for two days, and Thursday he was moved to the ICU [intensive-care unit] because he required stronger oxygen. Unfortunately, that was the last resort before the ventilator," said Julie.

Before he moved into the ICU, she said, hospital staff were cautious and they'd try to make him smile. She said she tried to speak with him when he wasn't too uncomfortable. They would talk about their wins of the day and kept their conversations light.

"It's important for people to know this is real," she said.

No pre-existing conditions

Lou Molinaro, the former co-owner of the now-defunct This Ain't Hollywood music venue in downtown Hamilton, said Gene's condition has shaken the local music scene and reverberated beyond Canada, prompting online comments from people abroad.

"He's highly respected ... he has that thorough knowledge of song composition and being a solid songwriter," said Molinaro. "A lot of people recognize Gene as not just being a musician, but an overall artist.

"When it hits a musician like Gene, it really shows how fragile music has become because of COVID."

Molinaro said seeing a friend he's known for more than a decade get infected is "super scary."

Champagne is known for playing multiple instruments, in addition to singing, songwriting, producing and engineering. Here, he's pictured with Jeremy Knowles in their band Junior Achiever in 2008. (Submitted by Takuma Mori)

"It's put a lot of perspective on this whole COVID thing, and for people who don't believe in it ... this is real and it's really hit home. It's a really bad reality check," he said.

"The good thing about Gene is a he's a fighter ... he'll get through this."

Julie is also optimistic.

"The statistics for this are really scary, but Gene is a young guy and didn't have pre-existing health conditions, and he's healthy enough to fight this," she said.

"We have that on our side. His body just needs a break and that's what the ventilator will do for him. And now it's just a waiting game."

Julie said the outpouring of support has been unbelievable.

"I wish he could feel it. I wish he knew. I can't wait to wake him up and read all of this stuff to him."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

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