LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Jim Eaton held his wife's hand Saturday afternoon for the first time in 51 days — the longest period the Louisville couple has been separated in more than five decades of marriage.
When Paula Eaton was wheeled on a gurney out of Baptist Hospital East, more than a dozen nurses created a tunnel to clap and cheer for her as the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" played in the background.
Paula holds the record for the hospital's longest amount of time a COVID-19 patient has spent in the Intensive Care Unit before being discharged.
When she was admitted to Baptist East Hospital on March 27, there were only 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kentucky. She was within the first 20 reported cases of the coronavirus in the state.
After 51 days, several rounds of pneumonia, a blood infection, and weeks on a ventilator and tracheal tube, the 73-year-old survived COVID-19.
Under a humid, blue sky Saturday, Paula's family was there to greet her as she was transferred to Kindred Healthcare Support Center, where she will undergo physical, speech and occupational therapy to recover from the effects of the infection on her body.
When she was admitted to the hospital, the Eaton family didn't expect a COVID-19 diagnosis. But 36 hours into her stay, they received the diagnosis. Because of her medical history and pre-existing conditions — asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia — doctors flagged Paula to be tested as soon as possible, said James Eaton, Jim and Paula's son. At one point, an X-ray showed her lungs were completely white.
"If she had gone another 48 or 72 hours, she'd probably be another number," James said.
For more than seven weeks, the family has paid close attention to the state's death toll released by Gov. Andy Beshear. Every day was another day that Paula wasn't one of the numbers.
For Jim, a retired Kosair Charities accountant and Army veteran, the hardest part was not knowing whether his wife would recover from the virus that has taken the lives of more than 300,000 people worldwide, and more than 300 Kentuckians.
Aside from a few trips, he'd never spent this much time without her.
The evenings have been the worst, he said. That's when he misses his soulmate the most.
Until she got sick with the coronavirus, Paula still worked part-time as a travel agent out of a home office. Every day, when she finished work around 4 p.m., she'd come downstairs and sit with James in her sky blue La-Z-Boy rocking chair to talk and watch TV — either sports or home improvement TV shows.
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They "play for both teams" — Jim roots for University of Kentucky, and Paula for University of Louisville, but neither get upset if the other team wins. Their favorite shows are HGTV's "Property Brothers" and "Fixer Upper" with Chip and Joanna Gaines.
"The hard part was seeing her empty chair," Jim said.
And the one thing he wants to do when Paula finally comes home?
"To hold her," he said. "When I get her home, we'll curl up on the couch together if we can."
Due to the hospital's visitation restrictions, implemented to prevent the spread of the virus, Jim has only talked with Paula on a few occasions, and only via Zoom or FaceTime. She hasn't been able to talk since she's had a tracheal tube in her throat to her breathing.
When the family talked via FaceTime for five minutes on Easter Sunday, Paula just listened. They spoke words of encouragement to the family matriarch, but the call felt different. Normally, Paula is a "motor mouth," her son said.
"She doesn't shut up," James said facetiously. "She's been a travel agent for 50 years. When mom talks, mom talks."
Those that know Paula call her a "walking encyclopedia," James said. She's visited six of the planet's seven continents, and through her business, Paula's World of Travel, she gives the kind of personal, intimate and experienced travel advice you can't find on a digital travel site.
And because of her travels, folks from all over the world have been praying for her recovery, said her daughter, Julie Abbott.
"We truly believe that's what got her through this," she said.
The family was able to breathe a big sigh of relief Saturday, James said.
"When this all started, we didn't know what to expect," said James, a freelance photographer in Louisville. "Would she be able to fight it? With her willpower, yes. But would her body be able to fight it? We didn't know."
For every day in the ICU, it takes a person about five days to recover, said Amanda Hughes, a Baptist Health nurse who escorted Paula out. Hughes cried along with the Eaton family as they celebrated Paula's discharge Saturday.
She's one of the success stories, Hughes said.
But the recovery process means that hopefully, in about a year, Paula's health and strength will be back, she said. That's the long-lasting impact of COVID-19's victims.
Jim followed closely, clutching his wife's hand as she was raised into an ambulance for her transfer.
He walked her through the next steps, trying to comfort her: "I love you, Paula. The first battle is over, and now they're taking you to Kindred, where they'll help you get better."
As the ambulance truck drove away, transporting Paula to the next phase of recovery, Jim Eaton's sister, Patti Gray, turned to her brother and asked: "Do you feel better now that you've seen her?"
Jim shook his head no.
"I'll feel better when she's home," he said.
Reach reporter Savannah Eadens at email@example.com, 502-381-9498 or on Twitter at @savannaheadens. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.