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 | By Matt Riedl, Multimedia Journalist

Back From the Brink

Deacon Kevin Orth Defied the Odds to Beat a Grim Covid Prognosis

Kevin Orth was near death.

Around this time last year, few had much hope that Kevin would ever be his normal self again, after an aggressive COVID infection severely damaged his lungs and brain. The 53-year-old DeWitt deacon who worked out five times a week and walked multiple miles a day was fighting for his life in a hospital bed in Lansing, completely intubated and in a coma.  His prognosis was so dire that extended family had flown into town to help make funeral arrangements.

But at 4:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve something remarkable happened. Kevin opened his eyes.

Over the past year Kevin’s recovery from the brink of death has been nothing short of astonishing.

“It was definitely prayer, no matter what any clinical people say,” his wife, Brenda, shares. “It was definitely the Divine.”

Quick escalation

Kevin’s symptoms first appeared after he came home from the Michigan State/Michigan football game in East Lansing on Oct. 30, 2021. He had been volunteering with fellow Knights of Columbus from the Catholic Community of St. Jude in DeWitt. At first, he describes feeling a general malaise, with “a couple of cold-like symptoms.” 

“I just thought, ‘Well, it’s something that I’m going to get over quickly,’” he said. But as the days passed, Kevin’s energy disappeared.

He went to the emergency room twice to receive antibody treatments, but nothing helped.

There, at the hospital in Carson City, doctors said he needed to be admitted to the main campus of E.W. Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. 

‘Sick as a man could get’

A few days in the hospital swiftly turned into a few weeks, and Kevin’s condition continued to deteriorate. He became unresponsive and was placed on life support.

After Kevin’s sixth week in the hospital, a neurologist was brought in to evaluate the situation.

That neurologist was Dr. David Kaufman, chair and medical director of the Department of Neurology at Sparrow Health System. Kaufman also serves as chair of the Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology at Michigan State University.

“He was as sick as a man could get,” Kaufman said. “There is not really any meaningful way to describe how close to the edge he was during this fight.”

Kevin had a tube placed in his stomach to assist him with eating; his lungs had collapsed several times; he had an infection in his blood, had seizures, and sustained brain damage from a “COVID encephalopathy,” Kaufman said. He described it as “multi-system failure.”

“What he could tell was every lobe of the brain was severely, dramatically damaged,” Brenda says. It was becoming more and more likely that Kevin would never be the same again, even if he did pull through. 

At that point, a decision loomed: Was it time to discontinue life support?

Power of prayer

Years ago, Kevin and Brenda were talking hypothetically about what they would do if a situation like this ever arose for them.

“He told me, ‘You keep me on whatever you need to keep me on for at least two years, because a miracle will happen,’” Brenda remembers him saying. “So every time (the doctors) would come in, his voice would be in my head, ‘Brenda, you keep me on that.’”

Meanwhile, at their parish of St. Jude in DeWitt – and far beyond – scores of people were praying for Kevin’s recovery. He was given the Anointing of the Sick multiple times.

Kevin is a beloved figure at St. Jude, where he has been a permanent deacon since 2013. As the situation turned most dire, the Knights of Columbus at St. Jude began encouraging people to pray for the intercession of Blessed Father Michael McGivney, the Knights’ founder.

The Christmas ‘miracle’

In the middle of the night on December 24, Kevin’s nurse, Brooke, came into his room to check on him.

To her shock, Kevin was awake, and able to make eye contact.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Brooke said. “You would not know that that was the same guy from two days prior. It was a complete turnaround,” she said, adding that he was able to make hand gestures, nod his head, and squeeze her hand. “It was remarkable – I called the doctor in a panic, like ‘I need you to come up here, please come up here, this is so crazy.’” 

After months of rehabilitation, Kevin was released from the hospital on June 8. Almost a year removed from the gravest time of his illness, Kevin is still “trying to ramp up” his stamina, but he can now eat, walk and talk relatively normally.

He doesn’t know if his recovery qualifies as a miracle under the Church’s technical definition, “because it may not be attributed, specifically, to Father McGivney.” All that matters to him is living another day with his wife and four children, because “tomorrow isn’t guaranteed,” he said. 

“Each day is a gift from God – I can only do what I can do to make sure that I’m praising and glorifying Him and living the life that I want to lead, and He wants me to lead, to be an example to others. It’s a second chance at life to do the things I always wanted to do.

“To be better. A better Catholic, a better Christian, better father, better husband, a better friend. Just a whole new lease on life.”