Nic Spiess is a man of many interests. Family, education, surfing, pets and health — all are important to him. But one of them took a bit of a hit recently, leading him to identify exactly what interested him most: living life to the fullest and being there for others.
It was early March and the news of COVID-19 spreading across the globe seemed relentless. Nic, a high school teacher, felt some heaviness in his chest around the same time his school announced they were sending students home for online learning. Nothing felt quite right, and he assumed his health concerns were related to the novel coronavirus.
“If it was COVID-19, I thought, I can kick this, no problem,” Nic says. “But it turned out that I had some kind of pneumonia that was unrelated to COVID-19.”
A surprising turn of events
Nic was prescribed antibiotics but didn’t have much relief. He found himself back in his doctor’s office two weeks later. After a chest X-ray was taken, he was sent directly to Sharp Memorial Hospital.
“I had fluid trapped in my lungs, and after two days of treatment, I was told we didn't get enough of it loosened up,” Nic says. “The plan was to do open chest surgery.”
Nic was shocked. He had not expected to be admitted to the hospital, much less headed toward surgery. New COVID-19 precautions meant that visitors were not permitted in the hospital and he found himself in an uncommon position: feeling scared and alone.
“When I was told I needed to have surgery, I went into a very, very dark place,” he says. “I was scared, uncertain, alone — and I'm generally a very positive person.”
Finding positivity along with the pain
It was then that Nic met one of the people he calls his “angels” — the many Fourth Floor West nurses who cared for him throughout his hospitalization. Because he couldn’t lean on his wife, Sarah, and their three children, he turned to the nurses in his time of need. One special nurse, Rosario Farrow, counseled him to think of the experience as one with purpose — a trial that would give him strength to help other people when they are in need.
“We were kindred spirits in a lot of ways,” he says. “She told me that she could tell I was strong, and was going to bounce back and be OK. She picked me up when she saw I needed picking up, which is the same thing I would have done for her or for anyone else. But in that moment, I was the one who needed it and she was there to provide it.”
This support was a turning point for Nic. Their conversation helped change his mind-set and brought him back to the optimistic person he knows himself to be, determined to face what was to come with strength and hope.
An alternative to surgery
Nic’s new power of positivity seemed to work its magic. He was thrilled when Dr. Craig Larson, DO, a cardiothoracic surgeon affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital, presented him with an alternative to surgery.
The treatment he had been given when he first entered the hospital — tPA, or tissue plasminogen activator, which helps to drain the collection of fluids — could, according to Dr. Larson, be used to slowly remove the fluid. It would allow Nic to avoid surgery.
He nicknamed his week of tPA treatments his “seven-day war,” and greeted each new day with purposeful intention to do everything he could to help the treatments lead to healing.
When it was suggested that breathing exercises, stretching and movement could help, he forced himself to stretch in his bed, regardless of the number of tubes and machines attached to him, and the amount he perspired from the effort. “I completely turned my focus, my every thought and my energy to healing,” he says.
Giving back to those who give so much
Meanwhile, his wife and children, though distressed they couldn’t be at his bedside, felt confident that Nic was in good hands. In the health care industry herself, Sarah Spiess knew he was working with excellent doctors and nurses, and that they would get him home to their family.
“I just knew he was going to be well taken care of when I left him there that first day,” she says. “I am in customer service and I tell our employees that we want them to give our patients an experience like they would get at Sharp.”
This confidence in Sharp and the extraordinary care from providers who have treated their family — from the births of their children through Nic’s hospitalization — is why the couple have been regular donors to the Foundations of Sharp HealthCare over the years. They have recognized several of their care providers, from front desk administrators to doctors, through Sharp’s Guardian Angel program.
“The team of people that I worked with was incredible, especially the nurses,” Nic says. “I could tell right away they were tuned into me, wanting to help me, and the love that I received was unbelievable. There was never a weak link in all of my care — they were all amazing — and while we don’t have a lot to give, it’s important for us to show our appreciation.”
Life lessons learned
Nic’s drive to get better, leave the hospital and continue his healing once at home was equally impressive. While both his hospital stay and recovery took a little longer than expected, Nic was determined to get back to his active lifestyle. As soon as he was given the green light, he was in the water surfing, as well as enjoying walking, running and swimming.
He is also teaching again (still virtually) and appreciates being able to work when others have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. In fact, he appreciates just about everything — his family, his students, the beach, his pets — a little more these days. He is especially thankful for the lessons he learned throughout his hospitalization and recovery.
“This gave me perspective on our vulnerability and how we need help from others at times — none of us can go it alone,” he says. “I was getting help then, and now it’s my turn to help. This is the journey that we’re all on: overcome adversities, find the beauty and positivity in the challenges, and use the wisdom we gain to help others. That’s what life’s all about.”