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Giving the gift of color: Daughter honors father who contracted COVID-19 working as nurse on front line

Emily Lytle
Dover Post

Jeff Ritter was staying in his Washington, D.C., apartment in late March when he came down with COVID-19. 

About 10 days later, he called an ambulance and asked the emergency responders to take him to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he has worked as a nurse and nurse practitioner for almost four decades.

When he arrived at the hospital, he remembers seeing the emergency room sign.

"Then I don’t remember waking up for another month," he said.

After Jeff initially tested positive, his family was in denial and trying to use the “power of positive thinking,” his daughter said. But once he arrived at the hospital and was shortly put on a ventilator, everything shifted dramatically.

Rachel Ritter, his daughter, had just returned to the United States from Sri Lanka and was spending her 14-day quarantine at her parents’ home with her mother in Millsboro, Delaware. Suddenly, the family found themselves catapulted into the throes of this new virus.

Nurse Jeff Ritter's medical colleagues cheer him on as he exits Washington Medical Center after surviving COVID-19.

The family threw themselves into researching trial medications and talking to people they knew at the hospital, as well as family members who are physicians.

“It sucked,” Rachel said. “Typically, you can be there kind of advocating for that person in-person, [but now] you have to just call and be remote in your advocating.”

After many persistent phone calls, the hospital agreed to give Jeff a medication that was in the trial phase, but even after that, Rachel said, “Things just kind of lingered.”

Her father was on a ventilator for three weeks and eventually started on a dialysis machine. It was only when he received blood plasma with coronavirus-fighting antibodies that things began to change.

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Within two to three days of receiving the plasma, he was off the ventilator and improving. While some of seven patients who were given plasma at the two Washington hospitals did not survive – and they cannot be certain that it’s what helped Jeff – it appeared to make the difference, Rachel said.

In total, Jeff spent just over 50 days in the hospital. He then spent the next few weeks at the nearby National Rehabilitation Hospital.

For that entire time, he was not allowed visitors, and he did not see his family until they arrived to pick him up from the rehab hospital on June 22.

"At times, it could be very isolating," he said.

A Christmas gift to remember

After that long stretch of time apart, and Jeff’s constantly wavering health, Rachel said she knew now was the time to give her dad something special for Christmas.

Her father has known he is color blind since he was a teenager. Joining about 8% of men in the world, Jeff sees colors – but they are dull, muted and indistinct. Red looks brown, pink appears gray and purple seems blue. 

He jokes that he often has to ask a salesperson when picking out clothing at a store because one time, he came home and asked his wife what she thought of his new gray pants. She was quick to advise him that they were, in fact, green.

Rachel Ritter (left) surprises her dad Jeff Ritter with glasses from EnChroma, a company that creates products that help the color blind see colors.

As a surprise for her dad, Rachel reached out to EnChroma, a company that makes glasses for the color blind. She told them about her dad’s story, and the company agreed to donate the glasses, which enhance vibrancy and clarity and allow people like Jeff to see more colors.

Rachel gave the glasses to her dad on Monday as an early Christmas present, and he has been wearing them a lot since. He said he especially likes taking walks outside and looking at the difference.

“They’re kinda neat,” Jeff said. “They make things much more vivid.”

A nurse's fight with COVID-19

Going for a stroll around his neighborhood wasn't always so easy, though.

When Jeff came home that first day in June, he was in a wheelchair and "super weak," Rachel said. "[His] mobility was so incredibly reduced, it was crazy."

Rachel recently started a job in Delaware to be close to her parents, but before that, her dad was hardly ever home, constantly going to appointments for recovery or outpatient surgeries related to his battle with COVID-19.

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And his hard work is paying off, too. 

In the beginning, Jeff needed help getting dressed or getting in and out of the car, but now he is cooking his own meals and driving. He still has some weakness and numbness in his hands and feet, but he's already eyeing projects around the house –like those curtains that need to be hung or that upstairs room that needs painting.

While he is not quite ready to wield any power tools, Jeff knows the process is slow and frustrating, so he is keeping the same mentality he had in the hospital and rehab center: "Keep working every day on getting better."

Nurse Jeff Ritter of Millsboro before getting sick with COVID-19.

Perhaps it's the nurse's optimism in him, he said. He explained that health care workers often need to stir up support and encouragement for their patients. 

"You have to go in with a smile," he said – only this time, he was the patient. 

Jeff learned that he likely contracted the virus from someone at work, and four of his colleagues also got sick. One died at 45 years old.

One of the toughest things during that time, Jeff said, was waking up and watching people he knew take care of him while realizing he couldn't do much for himself. But those health care workers were with him through it all, even cheering in the hallways as he was transferred to the rehabilitation hospital.

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As he continues to regain strength and improve his health, Jeff said that fear or anxiety of getting sick or passing on the virus to someone else still persists, and his family continues to go out only if they need to.

The day after receiving his new glasses, Jeff was walking around his neighborhood and one of his neighbors called out to him to say hello.

The neighbor asked him a question that’s on the top of a lot of people’s minds right now: “Will you take the COVID-19 vaccine if you can?”

Jeff said he understands the hesitation around the vaccine, admitting he has some apprehension, too, but after missing a month of his life while on a ventilator, his answer was firm.

“I have no question,” he said. “The answer is yes.”