Fire chief’s 70-day COVID-19 battle: Nurses, sheer will to live, prayers helped him through

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MARION, Ohio (WCMH) — When Jim Newland started feeling sick before Christmas, he had no idea he’d be spending the next 70 days under medical care, many times close to dying.

On Dec. 15, the Ridgeway volunteer fire department chief started to feel ill with COVID-19. His wife, Deb Newland, borrowed a pulse oximeter from a friend, and it saved his life.

“His oxygen was in the low 80s at home,” said his daughter Stacy Foster, speaking from her father’s hospital bed at a rehabilitation facility in Lima. “Mom drove him to Marion General, and within 90 minutes of him getting there, his oxygen level went down to 50.

“We lost him immediately. For seven days, they fought not to put him on a ventilator,” Foster said.

But doctors made the decision to use a ventilator in early January, and that began a “rollercoaster” of getting better, then sicker, then better again. Newland had a tracheostomy and was in a coma for about three weeks.

“Somehow he has bounced back from there,” Foster said. “Somehow, he has the ability to stand, to use his hands again, and didn’t suffer any brain damage. He is hopeful to go home on Friday, but it’s going to be a long hard recovery.”

Newland has been fully aware for a month, but two weeks ago he couldn’t lift his hand up to adjust his glasses. At one point, Foster said, her father’s lung function was down to 30%.

“We were called to the hospital five different times where they thought they were going to lose him for sure,” Foster said. “To be perfectly honest with you, most of the patients that came in with him didn’t make it. These nurses, and his true fight, his sheer will to live and the nurses Paige, Nancy, Adam and Brian in Marion General, were nothing short of a miracle in pulling this off.”

Jim Newland started fighting fires as a young man in 1974. He was watching a fire, and the crew told him to pull the hose. He became a junior and stayed with Ridgeway fire department for the rest of his life.

Ridgeway, a small town that straddles Logan and Hardin counties, could not afford a fire station or new equipment. So, Newland set about writing grants and holding fundraisers.

“Got the fire department built on grant money and fundraisers.” he whispered from his hospital bed. “No public money spent.”

They also got a jaws of life, new fire trucks and the firehouse itself, as well as a grant for the houses in Ridgeway to get smoke detectors. They haven’t had a fatal fire because of the program, Foster said.

“Dad is very well known in the fire community. He’s been in the same church all his life so a lot of prayers were said across a lot of continents for him. He literally had the sheerest will to live. There was no other medical explanation for this,” Foster said.

Newland said he’s spent a lot of time thinking about what was left undone while he’s been trapped by COVID-19, but that he can feel people’s prayers. He uses his limited energy to talk about Concord Township sending over a challenge coin, and his annual participation in a program to escort families of fallen firefighters at the memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

“It’s a rollercoaster of emotions,” said Newland from his hospital bed. “You’ll meet a family who’s really upset, but come Sunday night the family is laughing and hugging. They realize that the fire service is still there for them. It just goes to prove the brotherhood of the fire service.

“We fly in early Friday. On Saturday, we meet our families and get to know them. We escort them to the church service on Saturday night and light a luminary. On Sunday, we escort the family to receive a flag, a rose and a badge.”

Through this ceremony, Newland said he’d had the honor of meeting two United States presidents: George Bush and Barak Obama.

“To me, that’s my second family,” he said.

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