Rain or shine, Yelm residents Mike and Karen Conley take their 2.3-mile morning walk every day from their home on Van Trump Avenue through downtown Yelm to the Starbucks at Five Corners before circling back.
The couple, who have been married for 19 years, keep a quick pace. Mike Conley walks with a wooden cane, but by the way he’s walking, you wouldn’t think he needs it.
Mike Conley, 66, is a devout Catholic, a U.S. Army veteran and “one tough Irishman” — or so his sister says. He and his family have also been to hell and back, and they’re still in the process of finding a sense of balance in a world that just won’t stop spinning.
Last year, the couple both contracted the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Mike spent 75 days in the hospital, 36 of those on a ventilator, which severely damaged his muscular system and ability to talk. Karen suffered through a much more mild case while her husband was receiving treatment.
The couple were reunited in early June much to the celebration of the community. Their lives were seemingly altered but they thought their troubles were over.
Six months after Mike’s recovery began the family is still working to get back to normal. They’ve traveled miles down the road of recovery since June, but both Mike and Karen know they have many more to travel before things seem comparable to what they used to be.
“We thought we could put this whole COVID thing behind us. It’s still not behind us, because of all the damage it’s done to his lungs,” Karen Conley, 61, said from the couple’s living room this week.
Mike’s lung capacity is currently about 57 percent of what it should be for a person his age. He still uses oxygen at times to sleep at night.
He didn’t have any pre-existing medical conditions prior to contracting COVID-19 that would have worsened his condition, he said.
“I huff and puff a little bit, but I pretty much do whatever I want,” said Mike Conley, who keeps a positive attitude.
It hasn’t stopped him from returning to work. Mike Conley, who works part time at the Child Study and Treatment Center in Lakewood, a branch of DSHS, returned to work the first full week of January. By the recommendation of his doctor, he’s working three hours a day and only two days a week.
The couple, who characterize themselves as “semi-retired,” also own and operate Conley Suites Bed and Breakfast, which reopened as of Dec. 26.
Returning home after spending more than two months in the hospital wasn’t an easy thing, but Mike Conley seemed up to the task. After returning home, with his mobility limited and his vocal cords fried, he had an unusually up-beat attitude.
“Not even the first week we were home, we went to Jason’s (Greenhouse) and we bought some plants to plant at home ... he got his walker, and sat down to plant them,” Karen Conley said. “I was really worried and very protective … I really had to let him just give me the pace in which he was ready to do things and really trust if he would tell me he couldn’t do things. It was not an easy thing to do.”
On a scale from 0-10 on how he felt when he came home in June, Mike Conley said he felt he was at about a 3 or 4. Sitting in his home, underneath a wall display of model passenger and freight trains with his face and muscles more defined than when I last saw him, he said he’s at about a 7 or 8.
“I could walk a little bit, but I remember going from not being able to hardly stand to being able to walk,” Mike Conley said, recounting those first weeks back. “I’ve got to work toward about an 8 or 9 now.”
Things slowed down in their life when Mike returned home, but fears plagued Karen Conley’s thoughts. She’s still healing emotionally from the events of last year, she said, and noted that it made her appreciate the strength of their relationship and the life they have together more.
“My husband’s a really strong person,” said Karen Conley, who admits the process may have sparked a form of post-traumatic stress disorder in her. “For him to go through that and get sick, that part was new in that suddenly I was the one who was responsible for everything.”
While her husband was in the hospital from March to June, Karen Conley spent roughly 40 days quarantined in her home by herself without her husband. Not seeing her husband for such a long time, having the virus and the general stress of not knowing if her husband would die at any moment as he received treatment at nearby Madigan Army Medical Center was extremely traumatic. She saw him in person only one time during his 75 days in the hospital.
In the summer, as Mike regained control of his body, the couple began riding bikes together and, if the weather turned bad, walked. Mike Conley was able to peddle 6 miles on the Yelm-Tenino Trail, a small but notable achievement given that he’s ridden in the RAMROD and Seattle to Portland ride in his lifetime.
A few days before July 25, Mike and Karen Conley boarded a plane to Georgia to attend his niece’s wedding. Being a Catholic, Mike Conley said, those milestones were important to him and his family to be there in person.
But on July 28, as their plane was touching down in SeaTac, the Conleys received some terrible news. Mike’s brother, whose health was slowly decaying due to chronic aspiration pneumonia, had died.
Less than a week after being back in Washington, the family was flying back to the East Coast for the funeral.
This summer should be one for the books, Mike Conley said. His goal is to do some hikes this summer, mostly in the North Cascades, that were delayed last year with his personal recovery and family happenings. He’s also hoping to write about his recovery and hikes in a future blog.
“I’m not really worried about tagging the top of Mount Rainier,” he said, smiling, noting that he’s already checked that item off his bucket list.
As for the ongoing pandemic, the two have some words of advice: “Locking yourself in your house is not what we do,” Karen Conley said, noting that it’s important to live life with added precautions. People should continue to make an effort to wash their hands regularly, socially distance in public and wear a mask.
“We’ve just got to get through this thing and get better,” Mike Conley added.