Manitoba

'It's the only way we're going to beat this thing': Winnipegger with COVID-19 urges physical distancing

A retired Winnipeg firefighter in intensive care with COVID-19 is urging Manitobans to keep up physical distancing efforts.

Retired firefighter Rick Sterzer has been in St. Boniface's ICU with the coronavirus since April 4

Retired firefighter Rick Sterzer FaceTimes from his bed in the ICU at St. Boniface Hospital. He's been in the unit since April 4 with COVID-19. (Sam Samson/CBC)

A retired Winnipeg firefighter in intensive care with COVID-19 is urging Manitobans to keep up physical distancing efforts.

"It's the only way we're going to beat this thing," said Rick Sterzer from his ICU bed in St. Boniface Hospital.

"I know that young kids are full of piss and vinegar, but please, please. This may not affect you, but you could pass it on. Keep your social distancing until we get a handle on this."

The 65-year-old and his wife, Shannon, left for a transatlantic cruise on March 5 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., just before the federal government warned Canadians to cancel their cruise plans.

"We were already feeling like we wanted to turn around and go home on the fifth day into our cruise because by then, we were reading things on the internet and seeing things on the news [about COVID-19]," said Shannon.

Travel and a trip to the hospital before ICU

Passengers were asked to stay in their cabins for a few days before they docked in Marseille, France on March 19. At that point, Sterzer was feeling some stomach pain and was fatigued.

The couple caught a flight from France to Atlanta, then travelled to Minneapolis before arriving in Winnipeg on March 20.

Once back home, the couple self isolated, but Sterzer's symptoms got worse. He went to the Victoria Hospital on March 23 and was tested for COVID-19, but got a negative result.

Rick and Shannon Sterzer take a selfie at a Fleetwood Mac concert in November 2019. 'I know I'll beat it with everybody's encouragement and help and love and prayers,' says Rick. (Submitted by Shannon Morden-Sterzer)

On April 2, Shannon took her husband's temperature and said it hit 42.5 C. She said she called Health Links and they told them to go to St. Boniface Hospital. She said they were immediately met by hospital staff.

"They had it almost like a barricade at emergency," said Shannon.

"They told me to stand back, I answered some questions for Rick, and then they took him. That's the last time I saw him."

Sterzer said he tested positive for the virus while there. He said he was moved to different units until eventually he landed in intensive care on April 4.

"I'm glad I got here when I did," he said.

Health-care workers 'totally encouraging'

Sterzer said he's hooked up to different machines depending on how he's doing. On Friday morning, he was on a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, which cleans the air he's breathing.

"I kind of tanked this morning trying to sit up, so they've got me on a lot of oxygen, which is why I can talk to you right now," he said.

Sterzer said the health-care staff are taking great care of him, and have been transparent with him while he moved from unit to unit, getting hooked up to different machines.

WATCH | A Winnipeg COVID-19 patient talk about his experience in intensive care:

Retired Winnipeg firefighter Rick Sterzer is in intensive care with COVID-19. He urges people to physical distance. 12:16

"They're totally encouraging, but totally honest, which I find very refreshing. They're not hiding anything from me, but not letting me get ahead of myself," he said.

"I'd be asking if I'm going to have permanent scarring, am I going to be intubated, or ventilated. They say 'let's just take it, you know, just slowing you down a little.'"

'I've never been this sick'

Sterzer said he credits his career for keeping him alive right now. He said he has a separate room, but he knows there are a few other COVID-19 patients in the ICU, all at different stages of the illness.

"I have never been this sick, and I always prided myself on being in shape. I think that's one of the reasons I'm still here, to tell you the truth," he said.

Rick Sterzer on vacation in Aruba in 2018. (Supplied by Shannon Sterzer)

"The doctors and the nurses both told me that the fact that I came in here with no underlying medical issues like emphysema or obesity … other than the virus, and in good shape, is the reason I haven't deteriorated," he said.

"All the work in the gym has paid off," he said laughing.

'Don't take anything for granted'

Sterzer said he's been thinking of his former colleagues — first responders who are on the front lines during the pandemic. He said he put a message out to them a few days ago through the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

"Do not cut any corners. Take all the precautions you can — right from dispatch all the way through to the end of the call," he said.

"Don't take anything for granted. Look after yourselves and then in that way, you'll be looking after your families, after your kids, after your elders."

He said he's gotten hundreds of responses after putting out his message to through the union, calls and texts of support.

"I realize I can't get to everybody. I just don't have the energy to talk to everybody," he said.

Sterzer remains hopeful, and said he's thankful for his family, including his sister, his kids, and his uncle, who is a priest.

"Everybody is praying for me, so I know I'll get through this. I know I'll beat it with everybody's encouragement and help and love and prayers."

About the Author

Sam Samson

Journalist

Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email samantha.samson@cbc.ca.

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