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.”