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Santa Rosa man ravaged by COVID-19 spent 5 weeks in coma and survived

Dennis Stankovic was starting to lose his voice.

Not quite an hour into an interview in his office at the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club this week, the 46-year-old started sounding hoarse — “my smoky lounge singer voice,” he joked.

Stankovic, who was hired in April as the club’s general manager, pointed to a pink scar at the base of his neck, where doctors in September inserted a tube into his windpipe. While it helped keep him alive, the tracheostomy made his voice weaker, more raspy. That’s one of many souvenirs from his near-death experience last summer, when COVID-19 ravaged his body, forcing doctors put him in a medically induced coma from which they did not expect him to emerge.

But as Stankovic’s sister Denise Reeder explained to his medical team, “My brother is very stubborn.”

On Sept. 23, after five weeks in a coma, Stankovic woke up in a hospital room in northeast Georgia. “SportsCenter” was on TV, he recalled, and the announcer mentioned that the San Diego Padres had just clinched a playoff berth. That seemed highly unlikely to Stankovic, a long-suffering Padres fan who thought, in that moment, “S---, I must’ve died.”

San Diego was, indeed, postseason-bound, and Stankovic was alive — though bristling with tubes and catheters. His kidneys had shut down. He had internal bleeding, blood clots in his legs, and pneumonia. His right lung had collapsed. He had ulcers, bedsores, and a septic infection. At one point his temperature was up to 105.

So it might seem odd that in the months since he awakened, he’s come to regard that 35-day stare-down with death as “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Awaiting Stankovic, when he returned to consciousness, were scores of texts and voicemails from people who wished him well and assured him that he would pull out of this, even though they had no way of knowing he would — even though doctors informed his sister, at one point, that he almost certainly was going to die. He heard from close friends, and from “people I’d lost contact with, people I hadn’t talked to in 20 years.”

That outpouring, along with the heroic efforts of the doctors and nurses who saved his life, “reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of people,” he said. Surviving COVID-19 clarified his priorities, convincing him to move back to California, to be closer to the people he cared about the most.

Probably not going to live’

He never wanted to leave the Golden State in the first place. In May of 2020, the Orange County native was hired by Advance Golf Partners, a management company, to be the new GM for the two courses at Oakmont Village. “I fell in love with Santa Rosa as soon as I got here,” said Stankovic. “I loved the climate, loved the people.” He even liked his commute.

“People up here think their traffic is bad,” he said. “It takes me three songs and a commercial break to get to work. In Orange County it would take me two hours to go 28 miles.”

Personable, competent and funny, Stankovic quickly endeared himself to Oakmont golfers, zipping about the courses in his cart, handing out ice cream, asking people how their round was going. “He’s just a wonderful guy,” said Steve Spanier, former president of the homeowners association.

And then he was gone. Six weeks into Stankovic’s tenure, Advance Golf Partners pulled out of the deal with Oakmont. Suddenly unemployed, Stankovic found work in Georgia, helping his friend, Jeff Whit, manage three golf courses near Atlanta. While settling in, he stayed in the guest room of Whitt’s house.

Ten days after arriving, Stankovic learned that he’d been exposed to COVID-19. Whitt’s wife tested positive. Stankovic’s test came back positive Aug. 15. That night, he had fever, chills, body aches and nausea. Four days later, after using a small device to measure the oxygen saturation in his wife’s bloodstream, Whitt measured his buddy’s as well — “on a whim,” recalled Stankovic.

A normal reading is 95% or higher. Stankovic’s was 61%.

Get your stuff, Whitt instructed him. We need to go.

“OK,” replied Stankovic, by then quite delirious. “Where are we going?”

Whitt sped to a hospital in Braselton, 15 minutes away. Unable to find parking, he pulled the truck “onto some landscaping,” Stankovic said. Inside the emergency room, nurses checked his oxygen levels, which had plunged to 31%. “If we don’t get you on a ventilator,” a doctor told him, “you’re going to be dead in 10 minutes.”

A forceful advocate

When Denise Reeder found out her brother was in intensive care, she called the hospital. Dennis was “going downhill,” a nurse told her. ““He’s probably not going to live.”

She got a doctor on the phone and peppered him with questions. Had they tried the antiviral medication Remdesivir? They had. Had they considered putting him on an ECMO machine?

ECMO stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. The machines pump and oxygenate a patient’s blood outside the body, and are used as last-resort option for critically ill COVID-19 patients.

“We were thinking about doing that,” he replied.

“Do it!” said Reeder, who lives in San Diego, where she is a senior paralegal for an insurance carrier owned by Berkshire Hathaway. She proved a highly effective advocate for her brother.

In the end, doctors agreed to transfer Stankovic 15 miles north, to a hospital with two ECMO machines. Dennis had been on the machine for two days when his sister arranged for a priest to give him the last rites. By then, she and her brother Pete had flown to Georgia to be with Dennis. Medical staff spoke to them about “end of life preparation,” Denise recalled.

When the priest arrived, Denise assured him it was fine if he performed the Sacrament outside the room, on the safe side of the glass door. Father Tim was having none of that. “I’m going in,” he told her.

“He suited up and he went in there,” recalled Denise. Shortly after the priest finished, Denise thought she noticed a difference in her brother’s complexion. “All the sudden, he became more pink, not gray and sickly.”

She thanked Father Tim, who shared some information that gave her comfort. He didn’t want to jinx anything, he told her, but the last three COVID-19 patients to whom he’d given last rites had pulled through.

“I’m 3-0,” he said.

Two days later, doctors had changed their outlook on Stankovic from deeply pessimistic to cautiously optimistic. On the last day of August, when they removed him from the ECMO machine — a tense, dangerous moment — his heart and lungs “refused to quit,” as one put it.

While they weren’t guaranteeing he was going to live, the doctors stopped telling Denise her brother was probably going to die.

Two weeks later, they took him off the ventilator and performed the tracheostomy, a step designed to help ease him back to consciousness.

Stankovic recalls the moment a medical technician in his room realized he’d awakened. He couldn’t talk, on account of the tube in his throat. But his eyes were open. He was watching her — and “SportsCenter,” on ESPN.

Father Tim was 4-0.

New priorities

When a doctor instructed him to wiggle his toes, Stankovic didn’t budge. Having been in coma for five weeks, and dropped from 255 to 172 pounds, he couldn’t move, a condition known as critical illness myopathy. It would take months of rehab, of physical, occupational and speech therapy, for him to even begin to return to normal.

Slowly, painstakingly, he learned to speak and walk again. He moved home the week before Thanksgiving. By December he was back at work with Whitt, part time. By January he was driving himself to rehab, going to the gym three times a week. He no longer needed his walker, but kept it in the house, using it to do dips. He also hung laundry on it.

January was the month he got a visit from his brother Pete and his wife and their 5-year-old son. They went fishing on Lake Lanier. His nephew had grown by a half-foot, it seemed, from the last time he’d seen the boy. “And it hit me hard, how much I wanted to be home, to be closer to my family,” said Stankovic.

When he saw an opening for a general manager’s job at the Santa Rose Golf & Country Club, “I called everyone I knew in the golf business. I went after it with everything I had.” He got the job, and started April 24.

“The people here are great, everybody’s like family,” said Stankovic, sitting behind his desk, his clubs leaning against the wall in his office. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to land.”

He’d been talking for the better part of an hour, and his voice was giving out. He wakes up each morning with stiffness in his limbs. By the end of each day, his feet are swollen.

“I have more problems now than I’ve ever had in my life,” he said, smiling. “And I’ve never been happier.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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