Prayers fuel high school principal on road to recovery

Flower Mound High School Principal Chad Russell couldn’t help but laugh recently while talking about a new stomach bug that made the rounds in the community. After everything he’d been through with COVID-19, the last thing Russell wanted was to be sick again. But naturally, it caught up with him in a hurry.

“I don’t bounce back quite like I used to,” Russell quipped. “I thought it was food poisoning at first, and it took a few days for me to get my strength back. I’m able to hit some golf balls now, though. That’s my therapy as of late.”

Any minor sickness is child’s play these days for Russell, especially after his battle with the coronavirus. The beloved Flower Mound principal and father of four was diagnosed with the deadly virus shortly after Thanksgiving when he began experiencing shortness of breath. By December 17, he was struggling so mightily to simply catch his breath that he was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Flower Mound. He spent the next six weeks heavily sedated and alone in ICU at three different hospitals — including one in Oklahoma City — and 12 touch-and-go days on a ventilator.

He finally went home on February 3.

It was quite the journey, one that he barely recalls and never wants to experience again. If there is one positive that came from his illness, though, it was the love, support, and constant prayers from his wife, Jennifer, their family, and countless community members — all of whom he admits he’ll spend the rest of his life being grateful for.

“Jennifer started showing me all the outpouring of support on social media, and I remember it was very overwhelming emotionally,” he said. “I could not control my emotions, to the point where we had to take a step back and do it in smaller doses. The outpouring was immense, and it meant a lot.”

He added, “I will never look at this [virus] as a blessing. But I believe the world is good, and there are good people in it.”

Russell was named principal of FMHS in April 2019. Before that, he was the principal at Lamar Middle School for a few years after spending a decade as an assistant principal at Flower Mound. Even if you didn’t know that background, you likely heard about his battle with COVID over the last few months. From social media posts to television and newspaper features, news of Russell’s struggles spread like wildfire as the entire community wanted to be kept in the loop on his condition. Unable to speak for himself, Jennifer Russell steadfastly provided updates and asked for continued prayers.

Those updates were met with overwhelming support. Whether it was the former student at Lamar who set up a GoFundMe page or the prayer vigils and countless do-gooders who placed blue ribbons around town, organized meal deliveries, and pitched in for every single fundraiser imaginable, they all meant so much.

There was even a cross passed around for several years to families who experience severe illnesses. That cross ended up with the Russell family, and Jennifer was quick to drive it all the way to Oklahoma City to make sure it was in her husband’s hospital room at all times.

“I’m just eternally grateful to everybody who has supported us,” Jennifer said in an interview with NBC5 shortly after Chad was released from the hospital. “It’s really made it so much easier to get through it.”

Sadly, Chad was unaware he had that many people in his corner as he fought for his life.

Four days after his initial diagnosis, he continued to experience complications and received monoclonal antibodies from Medical City Dallas to help his body fight the infection. The treatment didn’t work, and he was admitted to Flower Mound Presby with double pneumonia. While there, he was sedated and intubated.

“I remember texting Jennifer to let her know that I was being admitted, and that’s the last thing I remember until January 1,” Russell said. “They say I was in and out, but I don’t remember. My oxygen saturation levels were in the 50s, which is not good. So I was in bad shape, and the doctors were telling Jennifer that they were concerned that I wouldn’t survive.”

That was when a new procedure, ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), was brought to the table as a potential option. ECMO had saved the lives of many critically ill COVID-19 patients. Chad was transported via CareFlite to a hospital in Oklahoma City only to find out that he wasn’t a candidate for the procedure. He took another downturn, and doctors began fearing the worst.

“There were times in ICU when they’d put the phone to my ear so that Jennifer and our daughter Grace could read to me for a few hours. Thankfully, there happened to be a doctor onsite from Chicago, and he took on my case. Little by little, I suddenly started to improve,” Chad said. “All during this time, there were people in Flower Mound praying like never before. I like to believe that those prayers were a huge part of my recovery.”

He added, “At first, I couldn’t sit up on the edge of my bed without my oxygen levels hitting the floor. But every day, I got better. I eventually took my first step, and it’s been exponential improvements ever since.”

When you talk to Chad today, it’s obvious that he occasionally struggles to catch his breath. He’s still doing oxygen treatment during physical therapy sessions twice a week and while sleeping, and there is hope that it is only temporary. In the meantime, he is being diligent about taking care of himself, getting exercise, and not getting too bogged down with busywork. He’s making progress every day, and everyone at FMHS is excited to have him back at work.

“The day he walked in the door, it was like a big burden was lifted from all of us,” Russell’s secretary, Barbara Langton, said. “There were a lot of prayers and a lot of people coming together. You just felt it. This school is family. And you always hear about this great community, so to see it in action like that was very special.”

Russell couldn’t agree more.

“It makes me feel fulfilled to be around these people every day,” he said. “The well wishes, cards, notes, emails, phone calls, etc., all mean so much. They all made a big difference. God put me back down here for a reason, to make a difference. So I’m taking that responsibility very seriously.”

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