'Weight of the world' lifted for Winnipeg family as retired firefighter with COVID-19 moves out of ICU

After being treated for COVID-19 at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital for nearly three weeks, retired firefighter Rick Sterzer, 65, learned he was finally being moved out of intensive care on Tuesday.

Rick Sterzer, 65, was admitted to St. Boniface intensive care unit with coronavirus April 4

Rick Sterzer and Shannon Morden-Sterzer take a selfie at a Fleetwood Mac concert in November 2019. Sterzer moved out of the intensive care unit at St. Boniface Hospital Tuesday after being admitted to be treated for COVID-19 earlier this month. (Submitted by Shannon Morden-Sterzer)

The first surprise came for Rick Sterzer around 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon. 

After being treated for COVID-19 at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital for nearly three weeks, the 65-year-old retired firefighter learned he was finally being moved out of intensive care.

"You might want to take your phone out for this," one of the nurses told Sterzer as they took him out of the room, said Sterzer's wife, Shannon Morden-Sterzer.

The second surprise came a few moments later, when the retired firefighter was wheeled out into the hall to be met with a standing ovation from the health-care workers overseeing his recovery.

"I don't think he really realized when he left ICU what a big step it was until he got out into the hallway," Morden-Sterzer said.

"People have been talking to him through the glass for 18 days, so to come out into the hallway and see everybody was pretty emotional for him."

WATCH | Sterzer's son posted this video of his dad leaving the ICU on Tuesday:

The couple left Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a transatlantic cruise on March 5, just before the federal government warned Canadians to cancel their cruise plans.

Sterzer's symptoms started on the ship, and his temperature eventually jumped to 42.5 C after they got back to Winnipeg.

He ended up in intensive care on April 4.

Morden-Sterzer said the support her husband has felt during his time in the hospital has been an unexpected, invaluable part of his recovery — including a visit from a group of firefighters earlier this month, who waved at him through a window from their perch in a ladder truck.

"That's when he was in quite bad shape," Morden-Sterzer said.

"When they turned his chair towards the window and his firefighter friends were standing outside the window, he was having a hard time not crying. He was just — I can't even express the joy that it brought him."

Winnipeg firefighters visit Rick Sterzer through his window in the intensive care unit at St. Boniface Hospital on April 11. (Submitted by Rick Sterzer)

Now in the hospital's designated COVID-19 unit, Sterzer said he's happy to have made it out of intensive care — though it was bittersweet leaving the unit and the people working there.

"I was trying to buy my way [back] into the ICU. I sent pizzas, and the other day I sent a big ice cream cake. I thought maybe I could buy some more time in there, but no, I had to go," he said with a laugh over FaceTime on Wednesday.

"They just kept me going. They just encouraged me and were there every minute, and I'm grateful for that. I really am."

WATCH | Sterzer talks about his recovery from COVID-19:

Winnipegger Rick Sterzer talks about recovering from COVID-19

CBC News Manitoba

12 months ago
Rick Sterzer, 65, says he knows he’s facing a long road to recovery from the illness caused by the new coronavirus, but he’s grateful to feel like he has beaten the virus. 0:20

Morden-Sterzer said it has been a difficult experience for her and her two kids — son Dylan, 30, and daughter Hannah, 27 — and one for which she felt she needed to put on a brave face.

"I don't think it matters how old your children are.… I had to be strong for them, because I didn't want them to pick up the vibes of how scared I was," she said.

"Every day that he's in ICU, but they say he's getting better, he's still in ICU, so you just have this underlying feeling of fear."

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Morden-Sterzer stopped taking their cocker spaniel, Frank, for walks around the block, instead staying in the yard with him out of fear she would miss a call about her husband.

She could tell her husband was afraid too, but she wanted him to focus on getting better — so she put her own worries aside when she talked to him.

"I've never seen Rick [like that]. I could see it in his eyes that he was scared as well," she said. 

"So I had to stay strong talking to Rick on FaceTime, because I didn't want him to start worrying about me."

A group of Winnipeg firefighters use an elevated platform on a firetruck to see Sterzer through his hospital window earlier this month. (United Firefighters of Winnipeg/Facebook)

Sterzer said his doctor told him it could be up to two weeks before he's discharged from the hospital, and another few months before he's weaned off oxygen at home.

"Just talking takes its toll," he said as he paused to breathe in oxygen from a mask — but he's optimistic.

"I'm feeling good. I'm holding my oxygen levels, as long as I don't talk too long or get up and move around," he said. "I'm going to beat this. I have beat it already."

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service vehicles line up outside St. Boniface Hospital on April 11 to show their support for Sterzer, who had been in the hospital's intensive care unit with COVID-19 for a week at that point. (United Firefighters of Winnipeg/Facebook)

Morden-Sterzer said for their family, her husband moving out of the ICU felt like a huge step forward.

"I really felt this weight of the world just off me, that he's getting better, it's OK. He's going to another ward, they're going to look after him, he's going to come home," Morden-Sterzer said.

"I can't even explain how I feel, because it's been such a quiet and isolated experience.… I had many days that I just couldn't even walk around the house without crying, and then you have to pull it together when the phone rings or when somebody FaceTimes. And I just feel today is going to be a good day."

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Morden-Sterzer said even though her husband is out of intensive care, he still faces a long recovery process. Things that used to come naturally for the active golfer and curler may now be more difficult as he works to build his stamina, she said.

But now that her husband is looking at coming home soon, their family is slowly looking at getting back to normal.

"The dog may even get a walk down the street," she said.

With files from Janet Stewart and Sam Samson


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