Coming back from COVID-19

Coming back from COVID-19
CFAES professor back on his feet after coronavirus nearly killed him
Karl Danneberger is recovering after one month in the hospital.
Karl Danneberger is recovering after one month in the hospital.

By Alayna DeMartini

Few of us know what it’s like to nearly die, to have our closest family members warned of our possible death, and then—to survive.

Soon after Karl Danneberger woke up from being unconscious for two weeks, he asked a doctor what had happened to him.

“You’ve been to hell and back,” the doctor said, “and we’re sure glad you’re back with us.”

Danneberger doesn’t remember much of that hell. It started as a cough and a low-grade fever for the professor in The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

Just a day earlier, Danneberger had gone to work and felt fine. As he coughed more, his wife, Sallie, urged him to go the doctor.

Karl and Sallie Danneberger and their two sons, Kyle (left) and Marc (right).

Wait another day, he kept telling her, thinking he’d surely start to feel better in a day. Tomorrow, he said. Tomorrow, we can go.

After the cough left him struggling to breathe, Sallie called the doctor, and soon after, she drove Danneberger to the emergency room. A test would show he had COVID-19.

On March 16, he entered the hospital and wouldn’t walk out for a month. For much of that time, he was unconscious in the intensive care unit, breathing with a ventilator. And all the while, Sallie was quarantined at home with their new puppy and other dog, unable to leave or visit her husband or family members.

In a bed surrounded by glass, Danneberger was watched closely by the medical staff. Whenever nurses or doctors had contact with him, they were fully suited up.

“Considering I should be dead, I’m quite thankful for where I’m at.”Karl Danneberger

Every night, a doctor called Sallie to offer updates. Then Sallie would pass that along to Karl’s two sons, his friends, and coworkers in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science. Besides prayers and letting others know, how else could they help, they wanted to know. Four days after Danneberger was placed on a ventilator, his doctor told Sallie he might not make it out.

At 65, Danneberger has taught thousands of students over three decades about the science of taking care of golf courses and other sport fields. As a world-renowned turfgrass scientist, he has traveled to consult about golf courses in Australia, Portugal, Chile, China, and Egypt, among other countries.

Karl Danneberger and fellow faculty member Joe Rimelspach on a trip to Sebonack Golf Club in New York with turf management students in 2006. (Photo: Ken Chamberlain, CFAES)

Two weeks after Danneberger was heavily sedated and placed on a ventilator, he woke up—amazing doctors, his wife and two sons, as well as his coworkers and friends around the world. So excited, a nurse danced in the hallway outside Danneberger’s room.

Looking around his hospital room, Danneberger asked a nurse where he was. She put the question back to him: “Where do you think you are?’’

Through one window, he could see a large Block O on the side of a building—“At OSU Medical Center?”

“That’s right,” the nurse said.

Danneberger would spend several days in the hospital relearning what he knew before he arrived: how to walk, stand, lift his arms and legs, even just talk.

The day he was released from the hospital, he was able to walk on his own—without a walker or a wheelchair. “I was proud of that,” he said.

“Considering I should be dead, I’m quite thankful for where I’m at,” he said. Thankful for the medical staff who helped him, the calls and emails from friends and colleagues, the support of his family burdened for weeks with the thought that he might not survive.

For so much, he is grateful, which is why he was thrilled to have donated plasma for patients with COVID-19, in hopes that they too would be able to beat the disease.