COVID that won’t quit: Clifton Forge man fighting long-hauler symptoms a year later

Tom Greenwood is over the virus but not its effects

Many Americans who have recovered are still experiencing the after effects. Officials have classified them as "long haulers."

CLIFTON FORGE, Va. – Tom Greenwood gets a bit misty-eyed when he thinks about his battle with COVID-19.

“I go back and think about it, with a tear in my eyes. When she told me when I almost died a couple times. When I got off the phone, I was teary-eyed,” Greenwood said of an conversation he had with his daughter, Katie, shortly after he finished an extended hospital stay that started in March 2020, about the time the pandemic was emerging.

Greenwood almost died from COVID-19. But he has no memory of it. No memory of his family clinging to hope.

“Every time that we called the hospital, we had no idea what news we were going to get,” said Katie Greenwood White, Tom’s daughter.

“And then that week that they didn’t think he was going to make it, we were both in denial and then I finally just told Katie - I said he may not make it. We’ve got to face that fact,” said Tom’s wife, Jane Greenwood.

“We had talk to the palliative team about end-of-life care. And what life would look at after for him and there were so many red flags and markers against him,” Katie said.

For four decades, Tom Greenwood was a math teacher and coach. He spent 30 years teaching in the public school system and another eleven at the Boys Home of Virginia. He worked for the Boy Scouts. Everybody knew him.

To his grandkids he is Pap Pap.

It was a shock when he came down with COVID-19. His, perhaps, the first case in Clifton Forge.

“I hadn’t been out of county. I hadn’t been out traveling. And I didn’t come in contact with anybody that had it. So, they were very reluctant to even give me a COVID test,” Greenwood said.

His wife added, “Well, I was in denial at first. I didn’t think it was even possible because nobody in the area had even come positive with it.”

To Katie, at that point in the pandemic it just didn’t seem possible that her father had the dreaded illness. “We’re just a little town Clifton Forge. Like that just isn’t here yet. This isn’t, that can’t happen to us,” she said.

But, it hit him hard. He went on a ventilator, and doctors put him into a coma. Despite their efforts, his body wasn’t responding.

“They were just telling us that there was a good chance he wasn’t gonna make it,” Jane said.

Then on Good Friday, things started looking up. Tom was able to breathe on his own. Doctors moved him out of the ICU.

Pap Pap would make it.

“Katie said, the first time I talked to her, she said you know you’ve been in the hospital for three weeks. I said ‘no.’ And you almost died a couple times. I said ‘No, this is the first I’m hearing of all this.’” Greenwood recalled.

But unlike most COVID-19 survivors, recovery just wasn’t happening for Tom. While Jane tried to get back to work at Lollies - her quilt shop in downtown Clifton Forge, Tom suffered complication after complication.

He went home still reliant upon a feeding tube. He couldn’t swallow normally. Speaking was difficult. He was so weak he could barely get out of bed. Rehab centers were not available because of the pandemic. So, it fell on the family to provide 24/7 care. A patchwork of amateur caretakers trying to save Tom.

“I’m not a nurse,” Jane said. “And I just suddenly was thrown into that position.”

So were Katie, and her husband. They rotated shifts looking after Tom, afraid to leave him alone for even an hour.

It would have been grueling for anyone, but especially for people who were not used to providing care to someone who was very ill.

And, in a small town Like Clifton Forge, where everybody knows everybody – Well – everybody knew that Tom had COVID-19.

“I had to stop answering the phone because it just got to be too much to try and talk to people,” Jane said.

So Katie, who was also tending to her newborn, Owen, set up a Facebook page.

“So it was like text messages and phone calls and we’re focusing on him and him getting better and trying to contact the hospital and see where he’s at, and we were getting bombarded with some of this love and outreach from the community,” explained Katie.

Through Facebook, thousands followed Tom’s struggle with long-haul COVID-19. Where the virus is gone – but the effects remain.

Fifteen months later, Tom has learned to repair sewing machines at the quilt shop.

He’s working with physical therapists and getting some lung function back. But he still suffers tremors. Stairs are difficult. He has blackouts.

“I’ve hit my head now, it’s a pretty hard head, three or four times,” Tom said.

Though he’s doing much better, he says he’s not fully recovered. He’s not sure he ever will be.

Jane says she sees him getting stronger but admits there are days when he needs to relax whether he wants to or not.

She remembers the week when Tom’s outlook was the bleakest and she was talking to Katie on the phone. Jane recounts the story with tears in her eyes.

“She called me one night and said he’s going to make it. And I just broke down crying saying, ‘Katie he may not.’”

Tom says he was on prayer lists from Harrisonburg to Charlottesville and down to Lexington, in part because of his contacts in scouting and because of people following the Facebook page.

As a result, people he didn’t even know tell him they prayed for him. He thinks it helped.

“When people say that to me, I go ‘well thank you,’ because I think I needed every one of them. I had one less person praying for me I might not of made it,” Tom said.

About the Author:

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.