DENVER — “I wasn’t expected to live.”
Wayne McDonald sits in the Denver South High School gym and stares off towards the bleachers. He’s no longer seeing wood and metal, though.
He’s remembering months in the hospital – weeks on a ventilator – riddled with the COVID-19 virus.
Or rather, he’s not remembering.
“The only thing I can remember is my wife and son taking me to the doctors [office] and I don’t remember anything else,” said McDonald, the head girls’ basketball coach for South.
It was March 2020, the very beginning of our coronavirus lockdown. McDonald started to experience flu-like symptoms but didn’t think much of it until that fateful day at the doctor’s office.
“My wife tells me that the next day I was on a ventilator,” McDonald said.
In total, he spent 63 days at Rose Medical Center – many in the Intensive Care Unit, unconscious – and 42 days on a ventilator.
“We all were devastated when we heard the news,” remembers Addison Wolden, a Denver South sophomore.
“It made me heartbroken,” said Taysha Williams, another sophomore.
“My heart just dropped,” said Emery Allshouse, Williams and Wolden’s teammate on the South basketball team. “To be honest, it was a tough, tough day.”
The staff at South was equally heartbroken.
“I just burst into tears,” said Meredith Barrow, the South activities director. “I couldn’t believe it.”
“He was pretty much one of the sickest people in the hospital for a few weeks,” said Adam Kelsey, South’s athletic director.
Eventually McDonald woke up, but conscious thought did not bring relief.
He said he was afraid of dying all day.
“Those were some dark moments," he said through tears.
However, through those dark moments came a beacon of light. The South basketball team was allowed to visit McDonald. That meeting gave the old coach the drive he needed to fight his way out of the hospital.
“I’d been coaching all my life telling them to fight, don’t quit, don’t give up, fight for another day,” McDonald said. “I was in that position. I had to fight for another day.”
So Coach Mac — as he’s affectionately referred to — fought his way through grueling rehab. He survived temporary blindness and had to re-learn how to walk.
And in late May, a large contingent of staff at Rose Medical Center cheered on McDonald as he left the hospital for good.
“To have him back, it just kind of gives you hope,” Barrow said. “He almost wasn’t going to be with us and that was something that none of us wanted to come to terms with or think about.”
“He plays a real huge role in all of our lives,” said Timiya Guevara, South’s senior leader on the basketball team. “As a coach, a father figure, as a grandpa, an uncle. He’s one of the reasons I’m still going too.”
“The kids absolutely love him,” Kelsey said. “He means a great deal and he’s a beloved individual in our school community.”
Being back on the South sidelines this season is about more than basketball for McDonald.
“I feel really blessed that I got a second chance,” he said, staying focused on living life to the fullest until the very last breath.
“Cherish life, be respectful to others,” McDonald said. “Enjoy each other. Because you never know when it can hit your door.”