ALLENDALE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Dennis McMahan served 30 years in law enforcement and was nearly killed by a drunken driver in 1981. Yet, he says his battle to beat COVID-19 was the hardest obstacle he has ever faced.
He was first diagnosed at the end of April. It was only Wednesday that he was finally released from inpatient medical care.
Holding handmade signs on a crisp morning, his family stood outside Allendale Nursing and Rehabilitation, where the retired Saginaw Township sergeant spent the last leg of his more than four-month battle. They were reuniting with “Rocky Balboa,” as the staff lovingly called McMahan.
“Tough times don’t last. Tough people do,” one sign read. “COVID-0; Denny-1.”
Before now, loved ones could only watch his recovery through a window at the facility. His wife Pam McMahan shared a video of her husband first learning to walk again. She followed his careful steps with a walker on her phone, going from window to window as he crossed the room.
But Wednesday, the only barrier between them was a door, which he walked through on his own.
“Oh, he’s walking without a walker! He doesn’t have a walker!” his daughters Candice Patterson and Megan Betzold exclaimed.
His long-awaited exit was 137 days in the making.
“We kept dreaming of this day, but every day we never saw it,” Pam McMahan said, holding back tears. “It never came, but it came today and we’re so thankful.”
“Every day truly was a struggle,” Dennis McMahan said, his voice still raspy because of a tracheotomy. “Eighty-three days unconscious.”
The emotional reunion could be felt by everyone there to witness it. Staff members lined up to congratulate him. McMahan knelt down to say hello to his grandsons, who both turned 1 year old while he fought off the virus.
“I had to fight because of my family outside. I couldn’t say goodbye to them,” McMahan said. “I was the 1%. The doctors told me most likely I wouldn’t make it.”
His near-death experience was also marked by circumstances out of anyone’s control.
At the end of April, he was first admitted to a Midland hospital — the same hospital that had to evacuate during historic flooding in May.
“He was not even coherent when I got the phone call saying, ‘Do we have your permission to transport him?'” Betzold said about his emergency transport to Saginaw. “And I’m on the phone and I’m like ‘Um, yes. I mean it’s a flood. Of course.'”
Another emergency happened during a second transport, this time to Muskegon to a hospital closer to his wife and daughters. McMahan began to aspirate in the ambulance, which got stuck in construction on the way there.
“They had lights and sirens; they could not move. So that was kind of iffy, too, but God was with him all the way. All the way,” his wife recounted.
All of this was compounded by restrictions that kept family away. Pam McMahan was finally allowed in once he was in Muskegon, but only for a few hours each day.
“We couldn’t even bring a phone charger because, obviously, the important COVID protocols that are out there and everything had to be disinfected and all these things we just take for granted that you stop and you think about. We’re so grateful,” Patterson, one of McMahan’s daughters, said.
It’s not quite clear how McMahan contracted the virus. He still teaches law enforcement classes, a possible exposure source early on in Michigan’s cases.
Before heading home for the first time since this spring, he shared a message for those fighting the same battle: “Don’t give up.”