Stephen Forrest rested comfortably underneath a park tree, enjoying the sights and sounds of his two young boys playing on the merry-go-round 10 feet away. As the boys laughed and played, one of them got his arm stuck and let out a scream. Stephen jumped up like a superhero to help — just like he had many times before — but this time fell flat on his face.
He got up once more, and again, his knees buckled.
“My legs couldn’t support me. I didn’t have the energy or strength,” Forrest said. “I’m overjoyed that I’m still here and can be with my boys, and every moment is big. But it’s frustrating to know how I lived before and not having that right now.”
A proud and strong Argyle firefighter for 17 years, Forrest, 36, is on the mend and thankful to be alive after a nearly three-month battle with COVID-19 that saw him end up on a ventilator and in a medically-induced coma for 40 days. In late July, he and a fellow firefighter contracted the virus while providing medical care for an infected patient.
His colleague was back at the Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 two weeks later.
Forrest, who admits he first tried to “ride out” the disease in quarantine before eventually being admitted to the hospital on August 4, wasn’t as fortunate. He suffered multi-organ failure, breathing problems, double pneumonia, and a bacterial infection in his lungs. He went through numerous rounds of blood transfusions and antibiotics to keep him alive. He was also on dialysis.
His health appeared to improve many times, only to be near death a few hours later. He lost 45 pounds throughout the entire ordeal, went through several months of intense withdrawal symptoms from all the medication he’d been on, and currently can’t hear out of his right ear. He also has blurred vision in his right eye.
Perhaps the most surreal part about all of it is that he barely remembers anything.
“I woke up in a long-term care facility having no clue where I was,” said Forrest, who added that he didn’t even remember the ambulance ride to the hospital when he was first admitted. “I ran my fingers through my hair; it was really long, and I never keep my hair long. It’s always short. I asked my dad, and that’s when he told me I had been in a coma.
“My dad would ask about before the coma, saying, ‘Do you remember this? Do you remember that?’ It was all black.”
Because he was in a coma for so long and hadn’t used his body, Forrest had to learn how to walk and support his own body weight. After the long-term care facility, he was moved to a rehab center before being released on October 15.
If there is one positive that came from his illness, though, it was the love, support, and constant prayers from family, friends, colleagues, and countless community members. There was a prayer vigil for Forrest and his family in August, and Chief Mac Hohenberger helped spearhead efforts to raise funds for Forrest’s family if he died.
Forrest’s parents, George and Lisa, were by his side as much as they could be, as were his five brothers, who often played music and played the guitar while keeping him company. With help from his family, he communicated with his sons, Eli (6) and Cooper (4), via FaceTime and eventually in person after nearly three months apart.
“The boys couldn’t come inside the facility, so I had to go outside in a wheelchair. And just seeing my boys after all that time … they were really excited,” Forrest said as he fought back tears. “Not having me around was very difficult for them, especially my oldest. I had heard that he’d be at school and break down in the middle of class. You never want your kids to feel that way. I love them so much, and I’m so thankful to still be here for them.”
He added, “Everyone was supportive. From what people have told me, Chief Mac dropped everything and concentrated on this. While I was in the hospital, he was preparing for the worst and doing all he could for my boys if I passed away.”
In a statement, several board members from Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 praised Forrest.
“Not to take away contributions from the excellent medical treatment that Stephen received. However, it was not primarily their care that was responsible for his recovery,” ESD officials said in a statement. “God was the Healer. For over three months, every day, we expected to receive a call that he had passed. His family originated Stephen’s Prayer Warriors. There were most likely over a thousand people praying for his healing. They may not have been aware of this very fine young man’s character. He is a leader in his profession as an outstanding firefighter, paramedic, and father. Slowly, he began to improve. Stephen has a way to go but is working very hard to be 100% in the near future. To God be the Glory.”
When you talk to Forrest today, it’s obvious how happy he is to have a new lease on life after such a horrible ordeal. And he’s doing all he can to rejoin his colleagues at the fire station. He began volunteering as a firefighter when he was 18. He was hired full-time when he turned 21 and worked his way up to captain. His job duties include running the station, overseeing his crew of three, and ensuring each call they go on is as successful as possible.
These days, his schedule is filled with physical therapy and eating as much as possible to regain his lost weight. He’s confident that one day his life will be back to normal. Until then, he won’t dare take what he does have for granted.
“My message would be never to take life for granted,” he said. “Anything can happen, so it’s important to cherish these moments that you have with friends and family.”