LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of more than 6,000,000 people around the world.
Mark Schlesinger should have been part of that statistic. After being diagnosed with the virus during the height of the pandemic, the odds were stacked against him. The 62-year-old’s fight against the virus, and his survival, is nothing short of a miracle.
A year and a half ago, Schlesinger had an entirely different life. However, a lot can change in that amount of time.
“I played golf. I was not overweight. I was exercising every day,” he said. “I was in absolutely perfect health.”
In October of 2020, Schlesinger, struggling to breathe and battling a high fever, drove himself to the emergency room at Chi St. Vincent in Little Rock.
The 62-year-old was diagnosed with COVID-19 and immediately put on a ventilator. What followed was a fight to survive, an uphill battle that Schlesinger barely remembers.
“Once I got to the hospital I was out for a long time,” he said.
Schlesinger spent the next 15 months in a hospital bed, with a year of that in the ICU. He was in a coma for two and a half weeks and suffered a brain bleed. In total, he underwent 16 chest surgeries.
“They kept telling my brother and my sister that I was not going to make it,” he said.
Schlesinger was flown to UT Southwestern in Dallas and put on the highest level of life support. For nearly five months, he was hooked up to ECMO, a last resort for COVID-19 patients. Doctors said there was little chance he would survive.
“They said even if he makes it, he’ll be a paraplegic,” Schlesinger recalled.
He coded six times, and each time he was brought back to life, a team of doctors and nurses was by his beside. One of them, he says, never left.
“I used to read letters people would send him and show him pictures,” registered nurse Loren Lehtonen said. “He might not remember it in detail, but subconsciously, I knew that was really going to help him.”
Lehtonen said she and Schlesinger formed a bond while he was in the hospital. She said he reminded her of her own dad.
“She would bring a picture to me every day of Sophie (my daughter) and say ‘Mark this is what you’re living for. You cannot give up,’” Schlesinger said. “I mean she would beat it in my head, ‘You cannot give up. Don’t give up.’”
What Schlesinger desperately needed was a lung transplant, and In August of 2021, his prayers were answered when he was finally able to have the surgery.
“I was told by the doctors in Dallas that no one has gone through all the things that you did and survived,” he remembered.
After a few months of physical therapy in Dallas, Schlesinger returned home to Little Rock in February of 2022.
“So many people will call me ‘Miracle Mark’ because it was a total miracle,” he said of his ordeal. “I mean there was a one in a million chance I would make it.”
He is a walking miracle, literally, thanks to the help of a walker. Even as he recovers, Schlesinger has a hard time staying put these days.
“I go to therapy every day and do exercises because my goal is to get walking on my own, hopefully by the spring. Late spring or early summer,” he said.
He’s also busy catching up on lost time.
“It seems like I go to dinner every night with different people,” he said.
He has even gone back to work part-time.
“I came back to live,” Schlesinger said. “I didn’t come back to just lay at home and do nothing.”
It’s an inner strength he said he discovered while in the hospital.
“I never intended on giving up. I had to tell myself I was determined, and I was going to make it,” Schlesinger said.
A strength that shined through to everyone around him
“He said he had one thing in mind and that was to get back to his family and his daughter,” Lehtonen said.
Schlesinger said by early summer he hopes to be back out on the golf course. For now, he’s busy driving the cart around the green saying hello to old friends.
Vaccinations weren’t ready when he got sick, but Schlesinger said he is vaccinated and boosted now and encourages his friends to do the same.
As for Lehtonen, she said she invited Schlesinger to her wedding later this year and is saving a dance for him.