Friends and family of the Rev. Terrance “Big T” Hughes’ gathered outside the Aurora VA hospital doorway Wednesday afternoon. It’d been many weeks since most had seen each other in person, and with masks covering their noses and mouths, it took a while for faces to register. When they did, some shouted with delight.
The crowd stood around, thinking they should socially distance but feeling like hugging each other. They chatted about Big T’s medical ordeal, church business or how trippy it felt to be around people after so long. They interrupted their conversations to applaud the gaggles of VA janitors, maintenance and food service workers, administrative staff, executives, chaplains, nursing aides, therapists, nurses and doctors emerging from the building. The crew lined N. Wheeling Street as if it were a parade route, ready to salute and celebrate Hughes, the hospital’s first and longest COVID-19 patient, as he finally left them for the next stage in his recovery. The VA knows how to do send-offs.
“He’s coming! Big T!” yelled someone able to see through the tinted glass entrance a stretcher surrounded by about 10 intensive care unit staffers moving through the hallway. The sliding doors opened – Big T’s first breath of fresh air in 58 days. Rachel Hughes, his wife of 19 years who’s also recovering from COVID-19, hugged her “sweetie” and gave him a bouquet of lilies. “Awww,” roared the crowd of people who know what these two mean to each other. “Now that is the marriage we all want,” said one of them.
“Big T. Big T. Big T,” family and friends chanted in celebration of the pastor, civil rights leader and Air Force veteran in the bright yellow hospital socks whose survival after seven weeks and two rounds on a ventilator some consider a miracle.
He looked good, well cared for. If he was overwhelmed by the experience of being in a coma for nearly two months, nearly dying from lung and kidney failure, waking to what he calls a “twilight zone” of sedatives, trauma, exhaustion and delirium to find that the world as he knew it has changed, he didn’t show it. A hobbyist woodworker, he held one of his signature walking sticks above his head in a grand victory gesture that made everyone cry.
Big T said nothing – which may be a first for the notoriously talkative pastor. He didn’t need to.
The VA hospital, part of a federal agency known for its red tape and strict protocols, let the man of the hour drink in the delight of the moment. Friends and family walked alongside his stretcher, saying their amens, I love yous and welcome backs. When the paramedics settled him into the ambulance and closed the doors, they stood there, behind it, singing a hymn, “Victory Is Mine.”
The ambulance pulled out of the driveway and drove slowly through the gauntlet of VA workers applauding, cheering and saluting him on his way to an acute care center in Morrison where he will relearn how to dress himself, eat and walk.
“Go with God,” one VA worker yelled as it drove by. “Don’t come back soon,” read a sign waved by what appeared to be some kind of VA furry dinosaur. A woman in scrubs stood silently, her hands held in prayer.
“I needed this,” she told me on her way back into the building, her face mask soaked with tears. “We all did. So very much.”