Mahar Regional assistant football coach Jamie Paluk details COVID-19 battle

  • Jamie Paluk’s daughters Haylee, left, and Taylor, hold up a sign in support of their father during his battle with COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The ICU staff at Heywood Hospital in Gardner made this sign to hold up against the window of Jamie Paluk’s room for his family, which kept an eye on him from the street below. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Orange resident and Mahar Regional School offensive coordinator Jamie Paluk gives a thumbs-up to well-wishers after leaving Heywood Hospital in Gardner following a lengthy stay after being diagnosed with COVID-19.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The Paluk family (top left to right: Taylor Paluk, Amber Paluk, Jamie Paluk; bottom: Haylee Paluk) pose for a photo back at their Orange home. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 4/26/2020 4:24:36 PM
Modified: 4/26/2020 4:24:32 PM

Jamie Paluk thought he had pneumonia, and so did his doctors.

But shortly thereafter, it became apparent that he had been exposed to COVID-19.

A co-worker at the Department of Developmental Services tested positive, leading to a series of tests for employees. With an intense fever and fatigue, Paluk made a trip to Athol’s Tully Walk-In Care on March 22. When the results came back, he had indeed tested positive for the virus currently plaguing the globe. 

“They knew right away when they took my temperature,” Paluk said. “I didn't look good. I was run down and tired. They called the ambulance from there.”

An ambulance brought Paluk directly to Athol Hospital.

The 41-year-old Orange resident's condition quickly worsened, as his lungs were under attack. From there he had to be transferred to Heywood Hospital in Gardner, where the staff there quickly decided to put Paluk in a medically-induced coma. That decision came as Paluk was unable to breathe on his own.

“I was having a hard time breathing,” he said. “I couldn't keep my levels to there they should be. My lungs were pretty bad at the time.”

Paluk remained in that coma for 17 days. During that time, doctors had to use several different ventilators to support his breathing while the virus ravaged his lungs.

The virus actually clogged the machines, resulting in a switching of ventilators. Once, while the medical staff switched out the ventilators, Paluk went into cardiac arrest.

“The nurse was on me giving me chest compressions,” Paluk said. “It brought me back. It was like an out of body experience. They gave me compressions for two to three minutes. I remember being up in the air and looking down.”

Paluk's family kept a distant, but steady presence throughout his stay at Heywood. His wife, Amber, and daughters Haylee and Taylor spent time looking up at his window from a parking lot.

With Paluk in bed, the staff at Heywood continued to interact with his family to let them know everything was OK.

“Any time that we went, we would call and tell them we were there,” Amber Paluk said. “They would go in his room and wave to us and make signs. They went above and beyond. It was amazing. They did everything they could to make us feel more connected to him. Sometimes when we were there we would flash a light up there and they would flash one back.”

The staff at Heywood updated Paluk's family as often as possible. Phone calls would go back and forth. When possible, the nurses at Haywood set up FaceTime calls.

“When his eyes would open they would try to FaceTime us,” Amber said, “to be a part of that because we couldn't be there.”

One nurse at Heywood provided a detailed guide of Paluk's hospital bed setup through FaceTime.

After the cardiac event, COVID-19 had the offensive coordinator of the Mahar Regional School football team pinned on his own goal-line in overtime. But the staff at Heywood, along with Paluk's physical resiliency, helped mount a miraculous game-winning drive against the virus.

The medical staff at Heywood used Tocilizumab, which is a immunosuppressive drug used in the experimental fight against COVID-19.

Paluk described Tocilizumab as his ‘Hail Mary.’

“It was the medicine and how they took care of me,” Paluk began. “It was almost a miracle. I don't even think they knew it was going to work. It was a last resort.”

Eventually, Paluk improved to the point where he was moved to a regular room outside of the ICU.

After he regained consciousness, the staff at Heywood moved Paluk over to the window to see his family camped out in the parking lot.

The whole ordeal was a series of distorted images for Paluk. When he awoke from the coma, he had no idea what had happened to him.

“I just kind of woke up,” he said. “I didn't know I was in a coma. I didn't know I had a cardiac arrest. I thought it was just a dream. I asked the nurse later on. The nurses that were there helped me through everything.”

In total, Paluk spent a month away from his wife and two daughters. After leaving Heywood, Paluk was moved to Fairlawn Rehabilitation Hospital in Worcester.

The departure from Heywood was a rowdy and joyous event. With a song of Paluk's choice playing over the hospital intercom system, he left the hospital to a standing ovation that lasted the entire ride from his hospital room to the exit doors.

Paluk chose “Hall of Fame” by The Script featuring It was his personal touchdown celebration against COVID-19.

“The doctors, nurses and healthcare workers all lined the hallways,” Amber said. “Every hall he turned down, everyone was cheering. There were nurses that came in on their day off to see him off and be a part of the celebration.”

When he exited the hospital, family and friends all cheered him on as he left for his rehabilitation stint in an ambulance.

With his limbs suffering from inactivity, Paluk said he needed help to get moving again on his own.

“They had to show me how to do everything,” he recalled. “I couldn't move my hands. I couldn't walk. They had to help me walk.”

With the help of the staff at Fairlawn, Paluk began getting around with a walker before graduating to a cane and finally walking again on his own.

“I did what I had to do to get out of there and come home,” Paluk said.

Kyle Newton, Paluk's friend and fellow assistant coach on the Mahar football staff, created a video for him to watch while in the hospital.

“It was all my friends,” Paluk said. “Past and present players, with get-well wishes. Each person said something positive. The nurses would play it almost every day. It gave me that fight to get better.”

Then there was the welcome home to Friendly Town this past Wednesday, where a line of cars watched and cheered Paluk and his family as they drove home together for the first time in a month.

Chad Softic, of the Orange Police Department, led the escort.

“It was overwhelming,” Paluk said. “The community support throughout this whole ordeal was just amazing.”

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