A Christmas gift of life

ROSEBURG — It was in a rare moment of alertness that Ryan Pickens finally noticed the date on the white board wall of his room in Mercy Medical Center.

"Where did November go?" he asked his family.

Pickens, 22, had spent nearly a month and a half in a drug-induced coma breathing with a ventilator and fighting to survive his battle with the H1N1 virus. After 73 total days in the hospital, about 45 of which were spent in the Intensive Care Unit, Pickens was released last week — a joyous day the family calls their Christmas miracle.

"I slept it away, fought it away, (my family) prayed it away," Pickens said of the more than a month he can't remember.

It was mid-October when Pickens had what he thought was a cold, said his sister, Jenny Folsom. He seemed to be getting better before taking a turn for the worse at a friend's house one night. Soon, he found himself in the emergency room with oxygen levels so low his fingers and toes were beginning to turn blue, Folsom remembered.

Born with a mild heart condition, the Winston resident was otherwise healthy, his family said. Within weeks after getting sick his organs began to shut down and things were "really touch and go," his mother, Julie Pickens, said. The close-knit family held a constant vigil at his bedside, with his parents taking the day shift and his sister and brother-in-law spending the nights.

"I yelled at God," Julie Pickens said. "This wasn't supposed (to be happening.)"

Then, Ryan Pickens was able to receive an experimental drug, called Peramivir, which President Obama authorized to be used in emergency cases even though it has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"Once the experimental medication came on board," said his father, Larry Pickens, "the doctors said, 'We are still not out of the woods, but it looks like we have turned the corner.'"

Recovery came slowly, as Ryan Pickens had undergone six surgeries throughout his stay, including a tracheotomy to allow for a ventilator and a procedure to fix a collapsed lung. He is still dealing with nerve damage and muscle deterioration from his time spent in a hospital bed, but other side effects are minimal.

"I am kind of amazed he came back close to 100 percent," Larry Pickens said. "It is the 'Miracle at Mercy.'"

Ryan Pickens and his family said they attribute his success to the health care professionals, many of whom became like family, and the prayers and support of the community. Family members have found a new renewal to their faith, they said, after word of the illness spread through social media Web sites and family ties and many people prayed with and for the family.

"I even had a prayer circle in Iraq," Pickens said.

"Prayers work," Julie Pickens added.

He is glad to be home, Pickens said, and although he has a long road of rehabilitation ahead of him, he remains positive about a full recovery. They have set daily goals, Folsom said, such as standing long enough to take a shower.

"He has two things he isn't allowed to say: 'Sorry' and 'can't.' If he says, 'I can't brush my hair,' we say, 'Here is a hairbrush,'" Folsom said. "It is the only way he is going to get better."

Tackling the medical bills left after his stay is another worry for the family. Pickens had just passed the age of eligibility for his parents' insurance plan when the illness struck. Now, Julie Pickens said, they are hoping the final bill totals less than $1 million. Those wishing to help may make a donation in Ryan Pickens' name at any Cascade Community Credit Union branch. More than finances, the family asks for continued prayer for their son and brother as he recovers.

"It has been life-changing," Pickens said of his illness. "I know now not to take anything for granted. ... You've got to have fun."

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