Still fighting: Roger Collins remains hospitalized one year after COVID

Roger and Billie Collins keep battling his health problems one year after his hospitalization from COVID-19. He's been in four hospitals and two rehab centers in two states, overcoming multiple setbacks.

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July 16, 2021 - 2:37 PM

Roger Collins, age 59, sits on the edge of his hospital bed in Dallas. Since he was hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 one year ago, he has lost 120 pounds and has been unable to stand unassisted. Photo by COURTESY OF BILLIE COLLINS

Roger and Billie Collins have learned to live in the moment.

They know how quickly it can all change.

On a given morning, Billie might be sitting next to Roger’s bedside in a Texas hospital, laughing and sharing the latest news from their family back in Iola. 

The next moment, a doctor might walk in with Roger’s latest test results, plunging them into despair.

It’s been a year.

A year filled with moments like that. A year filled with hope and sadness. A year of hospitalization and surgeries too numerous to mention. A year struggling with finances and insurance.

A year spent praying for just one more moment. 

A year spent coping with the fallout from COVID-19.

ROGER, age 59, tested positive for COVID-19 on July 13, 2020.

Just hours later, he struggled to breathe. Billie took him to Allen County Regional Hospital and he was taken by air ambulance to a Kansas City area hospital.

He’s been hospitalized since then.

“We’ve traveled through ups and downs, and dealt with everything as it comes. We put our faith in God,” Billie said.

By Billie’s calculations, Roger has been in four hospitals and two rehabilitation facilities across five cities and two states.

He’s been in a coma. He’s had a stroke, lung disease, renal failure with dialysis, atrial fibrillation, seven blood transfusions, thyroid problems and numerous surgeries. He needs to have his gallbladder removed but his body can’t handle the surgery.

He has a tracheostomy, but doctors are trying to wean him off it and have downsized the device. He recently started to use a special valve that allows him to speak.

He’s been able to sit on the edge of his bed but hasn’t yet stood on his own two feet.

Four times, he “coded” and needed to be resuscitated. 

Billie was in his room the last two times it happened. She dropped to her knees and prayed. Once, it took doctors 14 minutes to bring him back. 

“I’ve been asked, early on, how long I would let him stay on life support, how long we’d battle this and not put him in assisted living,” Billie said. “I told everyone, he’s going to come out of this and we’ll figure out our next step.”

Every triumph, every little victory has been followed by a setback. 

And yet, after every setback, Roger keeps fighting. They keep finding hope.

“I really, truly, honestly just put it in God’s hands,” Billie said.

Roger Collins

THE PAST year has taught the Collins family a lot about themselves, about each other, and about the love and support of their community.

“I have learned to be humble,” Billie said. “My parents brought us up to be givers. I never thought I would be on this side of the spectrum.”

She’s learned to accept help and to rely on others for support. When Roger was hospitalized in Kansas City and Topeka, she stayed with her son in Lawrence. Now that Roger is in Texas, she’s staying with a brother on the outskirts of Dallas. The commute to Roger’s hospital is between 45 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic. She makes the drive every single day.

Billie recently learned she no longer qualifies for unemployment benefits.

But the loss of their major source of income, Central Publishing, didn’t stop the bills — including the medical bills — from coming. Maintaining health insurance and other types of insurance has become a priority. Their premiums cost about $1,700 a month. 

A Go Fund Me account helps.

“Just when I think we’re sunk, that Go Fund Me comes through,” she said. “The Iola community and our Texas family have been so generous and so supportive. We’ve never lost the battle and we’re still above water. I thank God for that — and for everyone.”

A separate donation account has collected money to purchase a vehicle for Roger when he returns home. Billie said that money has not yet been spent, because she’s waiting to see what kind of accommodations the vehicle might need when the time comes. 

During the early days of Roger’s hospitalization, COVID restrictions meant Billie often could not be inside the hospital, let alone near Roger.

So she sat, every day, outside his hospital room window.

Her story caught the attention of local and even national news, including CNN.

Billie posts updates on social media nearly every day — even on days when the news is difficult to talk about. 

“People are listening and hearing our story. It’s heartwarming to know that he’s still relevant,” she said.

But the response hasn’t all been positive. Particularly after the CNN story, Billie received a few hateful messages. People insisted Roger’s condition wasn’t due to COVID-19 but to some other reason. They shamed her for collecting donations “just to sit around and do nothing.”

“Trust me, I wish I was sitting around doing nothing,” she said. 

In fact, much of her time is spent discussing insurance issues and advocating for Roger’s care. That’s a very challenging process in and of itself. 

The reason they ended up at a Dallas hospital was because no facility in Kansas was equipped to handle the various treatments he requires.

And as for Roger’s health before his COVID-19 diagnosis, he was taking only one medication for high blood pressure. 

“One thing I’ve learned through this, people really don’t understand. Those who are long-haulers in any disease, you do sit. You sit and wait for the doctor to come in and give you test results, then you research what it means. And you see other patients with their families sitting by their bedside, and you see them going through those emotions.

“The medical toll is one thing. But the emotional toll… You don’t see that unless you are living it. When all you want is a good day, for the doctors to say good things.”

LIFE goes on, though.

Roger and Billie’s children have had to continue to live their lives in Kansas the best they can, visiting Roger when possible.

They recently gathered on the rooftop of a nearby building, where Roger could see them wave to him through his window. 

Their son was recently hired as a high school technical director and assistant football coach in Ottawa.

A daughter and son-in-law became foster parents and have welcomed a total of six children into their home. 

Another daughter postponed plans to become a physician assistant because of Roger’s illness, but after Roger’s encouragement, she is back in college.

“So much has happened in our life this year,” Billie said. “Our family is our support system. And by family, I include our friends. 

“Even though we’ve lost the business and we’ve struggled financially, we’ve also been blessed. We never did this alone.”

After Roger started using the speaking valve, he was able to talk on the phone with his 3-year-old granddaughter. When Roger was first hospitalized, she was still learning how to talk. Now, she can carry on a full conversation.

“She was so excited,” Billie recalled. “She said, ‘Papa, I hear your voice. Are you better yet?’”

His family is what keeps Roger fighting to survive, Billie said.

His father died while he was relatively young. Because of that, Roger made his family his priority.

“That’s the thing that really pushes him. He wants to be a dad and a grandpa, and he’s just not going to give up,” Billie said. “His family always comes first.”

BILLIE won’t give up on her husband, either.

She refuses to give up hope that Roger will recover enough to return home to his family.

“I don’t ever let myself think that he’s not coming home. Every day, we’re one step closer to him coming home.”

CARDS can be sent to Roger and Billie Collins, 202 Pheasant Hill Dr., Rockwall TX 75032.

Assist with the Go Fund Me here.

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