Jim Capicotto was unable to walk, confused and extremely weak.
For more than two weeks, the 75-year-old Calabash, North Carolina, resident was hospitalized as he battled COVID-19. He successfully beat the illness, but it robbed him of the strength and coordination he needed to perform even the most basic of day-to-day activities.
Already battling the effects of Parkinson’s disease, Capicotto and his partner, Joyce Klein, weren’t sure what the future held for the U.S. Navy veteran.
“It really threw him for a loop,” says Klein. “It was really hard to see him so sick. He was pretty critical.”
To help regain his strength and mobility, Capicotto was sent to Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Hospital at Little River, an affiliate of Encompass Health, where he underwent 10 days of intensive therapy to help restore the function he’d lost.
Improvement was swift – much faster than either Capicotto or Klein expected.
“All the dedicated doctors, nurses, aids, physical therapists, OT and speech (therapists) have made the difference to his well-being,” wrote Klein in a thank-you card to the staff. “It was with your help and dedication that has put him on the path to resume his normal activities.”
The first signs of trouble
When Capicotto developed a cough in late June that wouldn’t go away, Klein took him to a care provider near their North Carolina home for a COVID-19 test, which came back positive. He was sent home to fight the infection, but as the days passed, he grew weaker, lost his appetite and became dehydrated. He never developed a fever, which is one of the most common symptoms of the virus.
“When he started talking out of his head, I took him to the hospital,” Klein says. “He spent 2 ½ weeks in the hospital. He was totally out of his mind, extremely agitated and so weak he couldn’t even talk.”
The retired retail manager moved to North Carolina in 2010, two years after receiving his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder that can lead to shaking, stiffness and difficulty with walking, balance, coordination and memory.
“Up until this point, it hadn’t really bothered me at all,” Capicotto says. “I was able to do what I wanted to do. Just in the last year, I started to show signs of it changing. My short-term memory is a big problem now.”
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When Capicotto fell ill with COVID-19, it was a double whammy because of Parkinson’s, Klein says. COVID-19 can be especially serious for patients with underlying health conditions.
“Parkinson’s patients tend to have a more complicated course and more difficult recovery due to their degenerative neurologic condition,” says Dr. Lisa Tarbert-Smaldone, medical director at Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Hospital. “They are a great example of a group of patients who benefit from constantly moving and the intensity of what only we are able to do at inpatient rehab. Movement and motion are key in an aging population, but especially those who have neurodegenerative conditions.”
Unable to visit Capicotto in the hospital because of COVID-19 safety precautions, Klein received updates about Capicotto’s condition via the nurses who cared for him. She also occasionally stood outside his first-floor window to wave and encourage him while they chatted using cell phones. She even got him to laugh when, while standing outside his window, the landscaping sprinkler system activated and drenched her.
“It’s funny the things he doesn’t forget,” says Klein, laughing. “He likes to tell everyone that story.”
During his 10-day stay at the rehabilitation hospital, Capicotto benefited from intense physical, speech and occupational therapy.
“I was trying to get my strength back up,” Capicotto says. “They got me walking around with a walker, had me going up and down stairs and getting in and out of bed, which was a chore for me. Now, I don’t use the walker anymore. I’ve got a cane, but I often forget to use it.”
Dr. Tarbert-Smaldone says Capicotto, who arrived defeated and sad at the function he’d lost because of COVID-19, made an incredible rebound.
“It was magical to see the transformation that he made in such a short time,” Dr. Tarbert-Smaldone says. “It brings tears to our eyes to see these patients celebrated as they leave our building and are reconnected with their families.”
Getting back to normal
Normal life is resuming for the carefree couple. Capicotto, an amateur radio operator, volunteers with the Town of Calabash’s emergency management department to provide communication support during major events like hurricanes. He also enjoys mowing his lawn and working in his shop.
Still, Capicotto gets frustrated with his Parkinson’s symptoms at times.
“It takes a lot of patience and readjustments,” he says.
But surviving COVID-19 and the success of his recovery has reminded him just how resilient he is and how much more life there is to live and enjoy.
“I feel encouraged,” he says. “I keep right on going. Never say die.”
He and Klein hope his experience with inpatient rehabilitation inspires others who may be facing similar circumstances.
“People get really scared about rehabilitation,” Klein says. “But it’s like the icing on the cake with the kind of recovery you can accomplish. It helps you get back to your normal life so you’re not just sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. Rehabilitation made a big difference for Jim. Everybody at Tidelands encouraged him, and he came home glad that he was there and appreciated what they did for him.”