TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Danny Mills still wears a mask to worship, not so much as a precaution against COVID-19 anymore but as a scar from it.
As he walks in the building of the North Tuscaloosa Church of Christ, he pays close attention to the door handle, being careful to avoid the spots most people would touch.
He listens attentively when people sneeze or cough — were they just clearing their throat, or was it a deep, congested cough?
As a double lung transplant recipient, Mills can’t afford to get sick. The 50 or so pills he takes every day to keep him alive also make him much more susceptible to serious illness.
Outside, he has to ensure he doesn’t get too much sun — he’s at higher risk of skin cancer, too.
At lunch, Mills has to be careful with what he eats. Some of his favorites, like sushi, Olive Garden’s salad or even fountain drinks, are off the menu because they could harbor bacteria that — while harmless to most people — could be life-threatening for him.
These are just a few of the everyday reminders of what Mills, 54, has been through: a serious case of COVID-19 that took more than a year of his life — and radically changed the rest of it.
From low-risk to life support
On July 15, 2021, Mills was admitted to Northport Medical Center with low oxygen after contracting the coronavirus.
He and his 43-year-old wife, Heather, were unvaccinated — not because they were against it but because they were cautious of it. They put it off, thinking they were low-risk.
Hospital staff told Danny he’d have to stay in the intensive care unit on high-flow oxygen for at least a week.
“I said, ‘Seven days? There’s no way I can be off work for seven days,’” he recalled, speaking at North Tuscaloosa’s homecoming this year. “They showed me.”
A few days later, church members held a prayer vigil in the hospital parking lot.
But the week went by with no improvement. Danny was sedated and transferred to UAB Hospital — part of the University of Alabama at Birmingham health system — about 60 miles away.
Doctors and nurses told Heather there wasn’t much hope — only 10 to 15 percent of COVID patients survived after being put on a ventilator.
Danny’s next memory was Heather telling him he’d been put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, a form of life support that replaces the functions of the lungs and heart.
Still, the Millses had hope and faith that Danny would get better, that his lungs would heal. They saw God at work in many ways.
When school started back, their 13-year-old son, Talon, was assigned locker No. 522 — the same number as Danny’s room in ICU.
He had nurses named Kathleen and Morgan, the names of his two daughters, 11 and 29, respectively. And he had a respiratory therapist named Tylon, a portmanteau of his sons Ty — a 19-year-old student and baseball player at Faulkner University in Montgomery — and Talon.
“I have to believe it was God’s way of letting us know he was watching over the whole situation,” Danny said.
It would still be another couple months before he would be able to see his children in person. (Danny has one other son, Brent, 32.) In the meantime, every day was a struggle.
Danny’s days in ICU would begin with an X-ray at 5 a.m., followed by respiratory therapy, nurse rounds, physical and occupational therapy and sitting up for hours to keep from developing pneumonia.
All the while, doctors were trying to decrease the oxygen level from ECMO to try to get his lungs working on their own again.
Danny described feeling like he was running up and down a hill with a wet washcloth over his mouth.
“It’s just fighting for your breath nonstop,” he said.
Prayer without ceasing
Prayer was also a constant part of the Millses’ daily routine.
“We prayed in that hospital room — man, I don’t even know how many times a day,” Heather told The Christian Chronicle. “And we prayed out loud — and if the doctor was in there when we were praying, the doctor was in there when we were praying.”
Often, Clark Sims, the North Tuscaloosa preacher, would lead a prayer with them over the phone.
Heather would text a group of women from the church, too, to say, “This is what we need to pray for today.”
“It became this avenue of prayer,” she added, “because I knew that it was real and that I wasn’t asking God for a miracle. I was asking him to hear me. … You can ask for big things — doesn’t always mean it’s going to happen. If you believe, there’s a better chance that it will, but you’ve got to believe with all of it.”
Meanwhile, Danny would pray for his family.
“I never prayed like that before — not for me so much but for Heather and the kids,” he told the Chronicle. “I was praying for her safety and for the kids because I know they were hurting. And I didn’t want them to hurt anymore.”
But the Millses didn’t just pray for themselves. Every night, they prayed for those on the church’s sick list and others who were in the ICU and their families, many of whom they got to know.
“When somebody is in the hospital who’s got a request out to pray for them, it means something different now than what it did before I got sick,” Danny said. “I know what it’s like to be there.”
‘Sick and tired of being sick and tired’
In November, four months after Danny’s initial hospital admission, one of his doctors first approached the family about considering a lung transplant.
They quickly dismissed the idea, still holding on to hope of Danny’s lungs recovering.
But a few weeks later, another doctor told the Mills they had to make a decision — now.
If Danny’s condition worsened, it would be too late — his likelihood of survival would be too low to even be considered for a transplant.
So after an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to get off ECMO, he started the process to get on the lung transplant list.
More tough days followed: tests, CT scans, MRIs, X-rays, walks.
“At this point during the stay, I was just tired,” Danny said. “Mentally tired. Emotionally tired. Physically tired. Everything. I’m just tired of the wires. I’m tired of having to put stickers on my chest. I’m tired of the tape being pulled off my arms, the X-rays, the ECMO hoses, the oxygen lines, CTs, MRIs, everything.
“I’m just sick and tired of being sick and tired. Tired of not being able to breathe, fighting for each breath 12-14 hours a day. I just wanted something to change — one way or another.”
It was a struggle for Heather, too, juggling her responsibilities to her husband in Birmingham and her kids in Tuscaloosa, an hour away — and her job, once she was forced to go back to work.
“I’d come (to the hospital) at night, but by that time, it was eat dinner, do the bedtime routine, go to sleep, and then I’d have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to be able to get back to Tuscaloosa in time to get myself and the kids ready for school and work,” she recalled.
But neither of them would have traded places.
“I couldn’t have done what he did, but he couldn’t have done what I did either,” Heather said. “If those roles had been reversed, the outcomes would’ve been different. … I don’t know that I could’ve physically endured everything he did and the isolation that he had.”
A heavenly homecoming
Finally, on March 16, 2022, Danny got on the transplant list.
Heather and the doctors and nurses were excited — Danny, not so much.
“I felt like a failure,” he said. “I couldn’t heal on my own.”
While he waited, now eight months in the hospital, Danny thought about Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Let this cup pass from me … but thy will be done.”
And he thought about Paul’s prayer to remove his thorn in the flesh.
“I prayed that he (God) would remove this from me,” Danny remembered. “And I prayed that God wouldn’t turn his face from me, and I prayed that Jesus would hold my hand because I knew Jesus knew how I felt.
“I was worried for Heather — I was worried for my kids, my family,” he added. “I was torn between leaving and staying.”
And he was worried for his potential donor, too.
“The cold hard fact — you strip away the fluff and everything — once I got listed, now I’m waiting for somebody to die,” Danny said. “Somebody has to die for me to live. And that’s tough to think about, tough to know. But that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
On April 2, that day came. The surgery was scheduled for the next day.
“Heather’s in there, and I’m holding her hand and telling her that I love her and how scared I am,” Danny said. “I keep telling her over and over how scared I am.”
The transplant was successful — but the fight wasn’t over.
Danny had to go through another three months of therapy — five sessions a day, with blood infusions twice a week.
He was released from the hospital on June 10 but had to live in a nearby apartment and do outpatient rehab for another month.
Then the day came when a nurse said those long-awaited words: “You can go home.” It was July 22 — 372 days after Danny was first admitted to the hospital.
Members of the North Tuscaloosa church and other friends gathered to greet Danny.
“We get to our street, and I see that green road sign that says Germantown Road, and I think to myself, ‘We made it,’” he said.
“And there’s cars lined up on both sides of the road. There’s people lined up … cheering and clapping. And I’ve thought about, wondered, if that’s the way it’s going to be in heaven when we get there.”
Finding faith in adversity
As the Millses approach the one-year anniversary of that homecoming, Danny is glad to have some normalcy back in his life, though it will never be entirely the same.
“Sometimes it feels like it didn’t happen — it’s just a bad dream,” he said. “But you see the scars, and your alarm goes off on your phone — it’s time to take your medicine. …
“And you see pictures of graduations and ball games and competitions, text messages — it’s a reminder that it did happen. But it’s so much better to be home and be with your family.”
For Heather, it’s important to keep telling the story of what God did for them.
“When you look in the Scriptures, and you see in the Word how these people ask God for certain things, how they talk to him, the way they acted, the way that they truly believed with all of their faith that what they were asking God to do was possible — that’s the faith I found through this story,” she said. “From the beginning of the illness to the end of the illness, the whole goal was that somehow, through all of this, people would see God.”
This piece is republished with permission from The Christian Chronicle.
Calvin Cockrell is a freelance digital media specialist, media editor for The Christian Chronicle and copyeditor for Religion Unplugged. He also serves as the young adults minister for the North Tuscaloosa Church of Christ in Alabama.