Roger and Billie Collins’ lives have changed a lot in the past 18 months.
So has their relationship.
“This has made us 10 times stronger,” Billie said. “I didn’t anticipate being his caregiver at 58, 59 going on 60. But I can’t imagine any other other way.”
Roger tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized on July 13, 2020.
Since then, he’s remained in a hospital, going from Allen County to Kansas City and finally to Dallas, Texas. He’s currently at Select Specialty Hospital, a facility that provides long-term care for patients facing serious medical issues.
From the beginning, Billie has been by his side as much as possible.
Initially, that meant sitting outside his window because of visitor restrictions in the early months of the pandemic. Then, she kept watch outside his room.
Once she was allowed inside his room, she kept a daily vigil. She’s staying with relatives in Texas so she can be with her husband through the various trials and tribulations.
There have been many, as Roger’s body struggles to fight the various complications caused by COVID.
He spent much of his time on a ventilator. He’s been in a coma. He’s had a stroke, lung disease, renal failure with dialysis, atrial fibrillation, blood transfusions, thyroid problems and numerous surgeries.
A fistula in his arm, which ties together a vein and artery to allow for dialysis, exploded and required emergency surgery. He frequently suffers from bowel obstructions.
“It’s a roller coaster. Some days you’re going up. Some days you’re going down. But you always look forward to the next ride,” she said.
Often, friends ask why she goes to the hospital every day.
“Because that’s what he needs.”
ALL THAT time together has helped the couple forge an even stronger bond.
They talk about their past. They make plans for the future.
A relative bought them a book that asks questions and encourages them to share stories from their childhood, and talk about their hopes and dreams.
“We have conversations we might not have had,” she said. “I know more about him now than I did in 33 years of marriage. I know more about the person inside and out.”
Before his illness, expressing his emotions didn’t come easy for Roger. That’s just not who he was or how he grew up.
“I walk in the room and he perks up,” Billie said. “He tells me he loves me every day.”
ROGER has been weaned off the ventilator, which recently was taken out of his room entirely. He still has a tracheostomy, something doctors once told him he would need the rest of his life.
The Collinses refused to accept that.
Now, the trach has been capped, allowing him to breathe through a special tube called a cannula. Capping the trach allows him to speak.
Roger is undergoing a “red cap trial” (so named for the color of the trach cap). If he can tolerate the cap for 30 days, ending Feb. 7, doctors will look at removing the tracheostomy.
“This was a huge step,” Billie said.
Removing the tracheostomy gives them more options. He would qualify for a rehabilitation facility, and could come back home to Kansas.
He’s already working hard at rehabilitation, with three sessions a week. Roger hasn’t stood on his own two feet in 18 months. But recently, he’s taken trips around the hospital in a wheelchair. He pedaled a mini floor bicycle for five minutes. Soon, they’ll try 10.
“It was hard, but he didn’t give up. Anything they ask him, he’s willing to at least try,” Billie said.
On days without rehab, Billie helps him do exercises to improve his strength. They have a collection of devices to use.
“I call them his toys. He does not like that. Sometimes he rolls his eyes at me. There’s one that looks like a baton. I think he’d rather bonk me on the head with it,” she said.
“We try to make it the best life we can, living in a hospital.”
FAMILY continues to give Roger strength.
The couple recently learned they will be grandparents again, with a baby due in April.
That’s their new goal: To be home by the time the baby arrives.
On New Year’s Eve, their granddaughter, Kinley Collins, age 3, visited with her parents.
Children aren’t allowed in the hospital room, and Kinley had only seen her grandfather through a window since he was hospitalized.
Billie decided to sneak her in.
She suspects the staff were fully aware of what was happening, but they turned a blind eye.
Kinley climbed into Roger’s hospital bed, hugged his neck and kissed him.
“I’m going to be a big sister,” she said. “When are you going to come to my new home?”
Roger’s eyes welled with tears. “I’m going to try really hard.”
That’s his motivation, Billie said.
FINANCES have been difficult throughout the past 18 months, but the family is grateful to the Iola community for its support.
Roger now qualifies for disability, but not much is left after they use it to pay his health insurance premium.
The family sold their longtime business, Central Publishing Company, as a result of his illness.
A Go Fund Me account has been a primary source of income.
Each day, dozens of people call, text or message her for updates or to express support.
“Every time I think we’re down and out, God provides. There’s no lack of faith. I believe Roger is still here because of the people who pray for him,” Billie said.
“We are so blessed to have Iola. The community has never turned its back on us.”
ROGER’S 60th birthday is Feb. 1.
Cards can be sent to Roger and Billie Collins at 202 Pheasant Hill Dr., Rockwall, TX 75032.