May 15, 2020

‘An act of faith’

Faith, prayers help man in ICU, sick wife at home survive COVID-19

As his physical therapist offers a “V” for victory, John Dugan, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis, smiles after he finishes his final physical therapy session on May 6 as part of his recovery from COVID-19, including five days on a ventilator. (Submitted photo by John Dugan)

As his physical therapist offers a “V” for victory, John Dugan, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis, smiles after he finishes his final physical therapy session on May 6 as part of his recovery from COVID-19, including five days on a ventilator. (Submitted photo by John Dugan)

By Natalie Hoefer

John and Megan Dugan were looking forward to March 25, John’s 50th birthday. They and their 13-year-old son Charlie would be on a cruise with several other families to celebrate.

Then the coronavirus hit—not just the country, but the Dugans. Just 24 hours after the day marking his birth, John began a five-day fight for his life on a ventilator in an Indianapolis hospital.

“I felt like I was drowning,” he recalls. “I couldn’t breathe. It was the worst feeling in the world.”

Meanwhile, Megan suffered at home with the coronavirus’ telltale fever, body aches and exhaustion. The days blurred as she slept for as much as 20 hours at a time.

But the Dugans were not alone. Family, friends and even strangers stormed heaven with prayers. So did the members of their parish, St. Barnabas in Indianapolis.

What follows is a testament to faith.

“It’s not a story about me” or Megan, John insists, but “a story of how God held [our] hands.”

‘I prayed for someone to save me’

March 16 was a normal day for John. He’d been in Logansport, Ind., conducting business for JCD Realty Group LLC, the property management and real estate group he established in 2001.

By the time he returned home, he wasn’t feeling well. He took his temperature. The thermometer read between 100-101 degrees.

But the next day he felt fine and returned to Logansport.

“I came home and played some basketball with Charlie,” he says. “I finally just had to stop. I felt horrible.”

For the next seven days, John’s temperature ranged between 101-103 degrees. His body ached and he was tired, but there was no coughing, no trouble breathing.

The situation changed on March 24.

“Within an hour, his breathing changed rapidly,” says Megan. “It all progressed really quickly. That was terrifying.”

At 9 p.m., she drove him to the hospital, where he was placed under observation.

Six hours later, John was admitted to the hospital and placed in the intensive care unit. It was March 25, his 50th birthday. Instead of celebrating with his family and friends on a cruise, he was isolated in a hospital, his coughing and shortness of breath worsening.

Late the next day, John was placed on a ventilator.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” he says. “I thought I’d be on it that night and maybe the next day so I could sleep. I didn’t realize it was life support.”

So began a five-day struggle that John recalls as one long sensation of drowning and fighting to breathe.

“It was like I could look up and see where the air was, but couldn’t reach it,” he says. “I felt like I was going to die. I thought, ‘How am I still breathing? I know I’m not supposed to be able to breathe underwater—I don’t have gills.’

“I didn’t understand I was on a ventilator that was breathing for me, so I kept trying to breathe myself, trying to cough up whatever was in my lungs.

“I’d think, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and drift off. But then I’d wake up and still be alive. I just prayed for someone to walk in the door and save me.”

‘It was in the hands of God’

Even though he felt like he was dying, says John, he never feared death.

“I felt God’s presence the whole time,” he recalls. “I felt scared of the pain, but not of dying, not of what would happen to me. I felt miserable, but peaceful. I knew it wasn’t in my hands. It was in the hands of God.”

After the ventilator was removed on March 31, John learned how close he’d come to dying.

“I didn’t understand it until a nurse practitioner said, ‘I just want to say congratulations. I’ve been a nurse practitioner a long time, and I never talked to anyone who came off a ventilator,’ ” he recalls. “I asked her what she meant, and she said, ‘People just don’t get off those things.’

“That’s when it really hit. I didn’t realize I was on it for five days.”

Later during a phone conference, Megan told John about the outpouring of prayer on his behalf.

The kids in Charlie’s sixth-grade class at St. Barnabas School—most of whom John knew through coaching or helping coach the school’s basketball, football, volleyball and wrestling teams and assisting with Vacation Bible School for several years—prayed a rosary for him.

The list of those praying continued—the St. Barnabas Men’s Club, the couple’s fellow parish marriage sponsor couples, their priest friends, classmates he graduated with from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis in 1988.

He even learned that their parish priest, Father Daniel Mahan, had tried to visit him in the hospital to give him a blessing, “but they wouldn’t let him in,” says John.

“When Megan told me everyone who was praying for me, I was dumbfounded,” he says. “I found out people I hardly knew were praying for me. Then it was person after person after person. I thought, ‘No wonder I made it through!’ ”

‘It was so touching’

During the conference call, John also learned how sick his wife had been.

“The entire time he was in the hospital, I was home with a fever and body aches,” says Megan, special services manager for the technology company CDW.

She recalls wanting “to be strong for Charlie,” who stayed in the upstairs portion of the family’s home while Megan stayed downstairs.

“In my head, I thought I was showing him I was OK, checking in on him a lot and saying, ‘You doing OK, buddy?’ ” she says. “But looking back, he tells me, ‘Mom, you slept a lot. One time you slept 20 hours.’ ”

Then came the night Megan’s breathing became shallow. She knew if she went to the hospital, Charlie would have to stay with relatives, which could expose them to the coronavirus.

But Megan was even more concerned for Charlie.

“At 13, he doesn’t like to show emotion,” she says. “But I knew he was really upset. I couldn’t do that to Charlie, leave him with no parents. Because John was in the hospital, I had to power through it.”

So Megan, a convert to Catholicism, prayed.

“One minute I was getting on my knees and praying for God to save my husband’s life, to save me, to help the doctors. The next I’d be angry, yelling at God, ‘I can’t take this! Why are you doing this?’ ”

But just like John, Megan was not alone. She says the “outpouring of love and faith from friends, neighbors and strangers was amazing.” Members of the St. Barnabas MOMS group and sponsor couples reached out, preparing meals and asking how they could help.

“I was overwhelmed,” she says. “It was so touching.”

‘We’re stronger for it’

John was released from the hospital on April 2. Recovered now, the couple is thankful that they survived and that Charlie remained healthy.

They are thankful for the support they received from family, friends, acquaintances and strangers.

And they are thankful for the gift of faith—both theirs and of all those who prayed for them.

“There’s no way something like this can’t affect your faith,” says John. “When I was thinking every breath was my last, every breath was an act of faith.”

He says the couple now looks back—and forward—and sees “God’s presence, how he works his grace through others, through what they say, what they do. You see life through the eyes of faith.”

Megan adds that she and John are “so humbled by the outpouring of support and prayers from everyone, and now we ask ourselves how we can we help others.”

For instance, she says, “John hates needles. I thought he’d never want to donate blood to help work for a cure or a vaccination [for COVID-19].” But when he was contacted about donating his blood for that purpose, “He didn’t hesitate,” she notes.

It was a “traumatic, terrifying three weeks,” Megan admits. But through God’s grace, the gift of faith and the prayers and support of so many others, she says, “we’re on the other side of the trial, and we’re stronger for it.” †

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