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Reclaiming Life after COVID

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The Hernando Sun ‘Wayback Machine‘
Two Years Ago…
July 23, 2021

When Ronald “RJ” Wilkins Jr was diagnosed with COVID in May, the 30 year old was not expected to survive; and if he did, he was predicted to spend the rest of his life contending with long term brain injuries, this owing to the lack of oxygen reaching his brain during his illness. Breathing and feeding tubes were inserted, and he was bed bound in his room at Bayfront Health Brooksville.

Then came the first breath. The first word. The first steps. And, in a matter of weeks, the now COVID negative RJ is expected to return to the home he shares with girlfriend Caleigh, and to a job that has awaited him since May.

“RJ is a miracle,” said John Lee, his supervisor at Coney Island Drive In in downtown Brooksville. “We were told he would not survive. But just as a parent takes such pride in a child’s first steps, I’m so, so proud of RJ’s every step forward.”

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During his three years as a manager at Coney Island, RJ has earned a reputation as a fun, friendly employee beloved by everyone. Now, he also has become known as a true survivor. “He has now been weaned off the breathing machine, the team is working to wean him off tube feedings,” reported Jennifer Siem, System Director of Marketing & Public Relations at Bayfront Health, “and is working to remove the trach that he had to have placed. This week he was able to take several steps with the assistance of physical therapy and he is focused on his goal of returning to work.”

RJ is also speaking–and his primary subject of conversation is survival. “I’m all right,” he said. “And I have a whole lot of people pulling for me.”

RJ says that his strong sense of survival emanates from his active lifestyle and undying work ethic. “I’ve always believed in providing for myself–working hard and not living off of anyone else. I work six days a week,” he said. “And on my day off, I’m out walking, doing things with my girlfriend, staying active.”

RJ says that he hates being bed-ridden, having fought his way awake from a medically induced coma as he fights to regain his speech and movement.
“I’m getting better little by little,” he said.

Always by his side is girlfriend Caleigh, who is now considering a nursing career after months of nurturing and supporting her boyfriend of one year. “I tested COVID negative on our one year anniversary,” he said.

Also in his corner are the supervisor and co-workers who await him back at Coney Island, who send him cards and videos filled with well wishes. Manager John Lee speaks to him every day by phone, and is currently trying to secure unemployment benefits on his behalf. “He has a long journey ahead,” said Lee. “But when he’s ready, his job is waiting for him. We’re a family here.”

RJ acknowledges that, with medical bills and living expenses awaiting him, the road ahead is a long one. But he looks forward to the little things that suddenly mean so much more: His first bite of solid food in a while. His first day back at work, and back at home with Caleigh.
“I’m going to keep going,” he said. “It’s hard, and sometimes I feel like I can’t do it.”

“But I’ll push on through.”

To support RJ Wilkins, mother Kathryn Simmons has established a GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-rj-during-his-illness.

Send your own inspirational stories to Megan Hussey, Community Reporter at the Hernando Sun: [email protected]
Show Us Your Sunshine!

RJ recovers at (then) Bayfront Hospital in Brooksville. Photo courtesy of John Lee.

Megan Hussey
Megan Hussey
Megan Hussey is a features journalist and author who is the winner of Florida Press Association honors and a certificate of appreciation from LINCS (Family Support Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force) and Sunrise Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center for her newspaper coverage of these issues. She graduated cum laude from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., with a journalism major and English/sociology minor, and previously wrote for publications that include the Pasco editions of The Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. A native of Indiana, she lives in Florida.
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