The Long Winter of COVID
Last Nov. 16, U.S. Missions chaplain Shannon G. Rust experienced some sudden minor breathing troubles, so he drove himself to the emergency room of the nearby hospital in Bedford, Pennsylvania. The hospital, filled to capacity with COVID-19 patients, had no bed for Rust, 52. A doctor sent him home with two liters of oxygen.
But during the night, Rust’s symptoms worsened. He felt weaker and weaker. His breathing became more labored. He couldn’t get out of bed on his own power.
Rust’s wife of 29 years, Rebecca, and 22-year-old son, Matthias, drove him to a medical center emergency room in Cumberland, Maryland, 17 miles away. The hospital admitted Shannon and placed him in the COVID-19 wing with a diagnosis of double lung pneumonia. Relatives couldn’t visit.
Two weeks later, Rust’s condition continued to deteriorate. Various antibiotics and inhalers hadn’t helped. Medical staff recommended he be connected to a ventilator; otherwise he would die.
On that Dec. 1 night, Shannon phoned Rebecca and told her hospital personnel painted a bleak picture, with three other coronavirus patients on the ward dying that evening alone. Shannon also talked to his parents, Sam and Norma, who have been married 66 years. The tenderhearted Sam became the first AG trucker chaplain in 1974. Three decades ago, Shannon joined his father in the ministry.
Rebecca detected the distress in Shannon’s voice over the phone line.
“I could tell that his breathing was getting worse and he was getting weaker,” Rebecca recalls. But he left her with a comforting thought that sustained her faith throughout the long upcoming ordeal yet to come.
“I told her to leave it in God’s hands,” Shannon says.
The message also likely saved his life. Subsequently, doctors and nurses urged Rebecca to disconnect her husband from machines keeping him alive.
In December, those measures included not only a ventilator to assist with breathing, but tubes in his chest and continuous dialysis because of kidney damage. The medical team sedated Shannon with a paralyzing drug.
Every day, Rebecca called the hospital at least once — and often twice — to find out Shannon’s status. She often received advice from her nurse practitioner friend Crystal Walls as well as Shannon’s sister Kim Chase, a registered nurse. Rebecca repeatedly asked questions, to the point of becoming what medical personnel considered bothersome. Rebecca didn’t care; she just wanted to prevent her husband from dying.
Over a nurse’s cellphone, Rebecca communicated with Shannon, even as he lay unconscious. She prayed and spoke healing Scripture verses. She convinced a nurse to play uplifting gospel music on a compact disc player in the room.
On Dec. 9, Rebecca and Matthias went to the hospital on the recommendation of Shannon’s physician and charge nurse. They described how Shannon hadn’t responded to any of the measures they had taken.
“They took me into a room, sat me down, and said, He’s not going to make it,” Rebecca recalls.
A nurse on duty heightened Rebecca’s anxiety with fearful words: He could code at any moment.
Even a hospital chaplain joined the chorus: It’s his time. Let him go.
The final pressure came when a “comfort care doctor” entered the room, and explained how morphine doses would allow Shannon to slowly die in peace.
In a side conference room, a distraught Rebecca phoned her nurse practitioner friend Crystal Walls, who asked Rebecca to relay Shannon’s vital signs. Walls then concurred that Shannon shouldn’t be disconnected from the ventilator.
Immediately after hanging up with Walls, Rebecca received a providential cellphone call from U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries Senior Director Manuel A. Cordero. She related the discouraging medical news.
Cordero likewise recommended she not give in to doctor demands. Cordero recounted how in 2010 he spent weeks being nourished via a feeding tube because of aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors offered Cordero’s wife little hope, and advised her to consider removing Manuel from life support. She refused, and slowly, miraculously, Cordero began to mend.
Cordero prayed with Rebecca, providing her further resolve to disregard the medical team’s expert guidance.
Rebecca told the staff to keep the ventilator on, the breathing tube in, and the dialysis machine going.
“When I left, I had peace, even though Shannon was still in a life-and-death situation,” Rebecca recalls. She went to the church where she pastors in Bedford, Lake Gordon Assembly of God, and met her sisters Jennifer Yost Bone and Tonya Cottrill to pray.
Medical personnel in the COVID unit change frequently, and less than a week later a different doctor called and told her to rush to the hospital because Shannon had no hope of surviving.
“It was as much an emotional battle as a physical battle because I couldn’t communicate with my loved one,” Rebecca says.
She didn’t hold back her feelings in Shannon’s room.
“I don’t want to hear there is no hope!” she shouted. “We’re believing for a miracle!”
In subsequent days, Rebecca unsuccessfully lobbied physicians as well as the hospital’s ethics committee via a Zoom call to try experimental treatments such as hydroxychloroquine. Doctors even refused Rebecca’s request to give Shannon vitamin C.
Efforts by Rebecca to have Shannon transferred to a larger medical center — in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Morgantown, West Virginia — all met with denials because of a lack of bed space.
On Dec. 17, Shannon underwent a tracheotomy in an effort to wake him from sedation. Finally, on Dec. 20, Shannon awoke. A doctor told Rebecca over a speaker phone that Shannon motioned a thumbs-up sign when she exclaimed, “I’m storming heaven for you!”
In all, Shannon spent more than five weeks in an intensive care unit, ending Jan. 8.
Bit by bit, Shannon began improving. However, he still had two touch-and-go episodes.
On Christmas Eve, his heart rate accelerated and the medical team had to quick start his heart twice.
On New Year’s Day, doctors said they couldn’t find a pulse and restarted his heart with cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They again called Rebecca to say they didn’t expect Shannon to live through the day.
Rebecca responded by going to Shannon’s room, anointing him with oil, and reciting prayers of faith. Back home, when unable to be physically present with her husband, Rebecca repeatedly prayed that the armor of God would be over every organ in Shannon’s body.
On Jan. 27, for the first time since Nov. 16, Shannon recognized a visit from his wife.
“There are no words to describe that day we got to touch each other,” Rebecca says.
On Feb. 3, Shannon left the hospital to start a four-week stay in a rehabilitation center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. There he engaged in occupational therapy, learning how to walk again after his muscles had been compromised. During the two months that his nourishment came from a feeding tube, he lost 74 pounds.
On March 2, Shannon went home to much acclaim from relatives, friends, and neighbors.
Although seemingly unaware of his circumstances through much of the ordeal, Shannon says his near physical demise prompted a trio of spiritual battles in his mind.
“I faced death three times — real close,” Shannon says. “Three times I dreamed of being marched to a cemetery vault. Right when they were ready to put me in, I pleaded the blood of Jesus and they stopped.”
Through the tribulation, Rebecca says the prayers of Christians sustained her. Word quickly spread on Facebook and through Chaplaincy Ministries venues of the need for prayer.
“We’re still getting encouraging cards and letters every day from people who write, You don’t know me, but I’m praying for you,” says Shannon, a genial man with a broad smile and gregarious laugh.
Although he is home, Shannon still must use a walker to get around, and he is on oxygen continuously. Although he is eating solid food again, he faces another swallow test on March 25. Doctors want to make sure certain liquids don’t damage his lungs. He is doing breathing exercises and is scheduled to see a pulmonologist on April 13.
In a test of a different sort, the Rusts face significant medical bills: 20 percent of costs after their deductible.
But Shannon is hopeful of returning to his Headlight in Trucking chaplaincy role, counseling and praying with truckers in the chapel of his 18-wheeler. Now he has an undeniable testimony of God’s transformational healing.