After months-long COVID-19 hospitalization, Winnipeg principal getting back to life — but recovery continues

Sitting in his Winnipeg backyard, Corey Kapilik remembers how desperately he wanted to get back there during the months he spent in hospital after getting COVID-19.

In spring 2021, the school principal and his family all contracted the illness.

But Kapilik ended up in hospital, where he stayed four-and-a-half months. That time included a pulmonary embolism, 70 days on a ventilator and 50 days in a medically induced coma that doctors thought he might never come out of.

By the time he woke up, the 47-year-old had to relearn how to walk and breathe.

He’d lost 100 pounds, and missed his daughter’s 18th birthday and her graduation.

But he had renewed appreciation for simple things, like going fishing and seeing Winnipeg Blue Bombers games with his son.

A girl in a sparkly red dress stands next to a man in a hospital bed.
Kapilik missed his daughter Chloe’s graduation while he was in hospital. But a few weeks after he came out of his coma, she put on her grad dress and visited him. (Submitted by Melanie Mazor Kapilik)

Today, the Métis father of three is slowly getting back into his life and reconnecting with his job at Marion School. Sitting under his apple tree in North Kildonan, he’s grateful.

“This is the place I wanted to be, right? So for months, it’s, ‘I got to get here.’ And then when I got home, this was sort of … the place I came every day, [to] sit in the yard and watch the birds and listen to the trees,” he said. “I’m very thankful to be here.”

WATCH | Corey Kapilik talks about getting through his hospitalization:

Winnipeg principal grateful after surviving months-long COVID-19 hospital stay

2 days ago

Duration 5:38

Corey Kapilik spent over four months in hospital after getting COVID-19 last year. That included 70 days on a ventilator and 50 days in a medically induced coma that doctors thought he might never come out of.

Kapilik, who was weeks away from being eligible for his first COVID-19 vaccination when he got sick, still remembers calling his family from the hospital after he learned he was going to be intubated.

“When you are talking to your kids and you have a couple of minutes to tell them what you need to tell them because you’re not sure what’s going to happen — I think that changed all of our lives,” he said.

“It was hard. And to be alone was really hard.”

When he awoke, Kapilik said he realized he couldn’t move from the neck down because his muscles and nerves had deteriorated. But he also remembered being comforted as he overheard bedside conversations among his family once they were allowed in.

“There was a point where my kids and my mom and my brothers were called in to visit me, even during COVID, because they didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.

“I remember … one of my brothers saying, ‘You know, let’s just get this done and let’s get a fishing boat and let’s just fish every day now.'”

A man stands in a boat holding a big fish.
Kapilik says his experience gave him a renewed appreciation for the simple things, like going fishing. This June, he was finally well enough to do that again. (Submitted by Melanie Mazor Kapilik)

Kapilik said his recovery is ongoing. Some days he can walk or hike, while others he feels breathless. He has nerve damage in his legs and can’t move his right big toe.

After talking to a neurologist, he said he thinks it will be another year of nerve regeneration before he knows the long-term effects.

Range of long COVID symptoms

Dr. Alan Katz is part of a team at the University of Manitoba researching post-COVID condition, also known as long COVID, in the province.

Katz said there are over 100 symptoms that can suggest a person might be suffering from long COVID, if they appear 90 days after the infection. 

Shortness of breath and nerve damage are common, he said. But symptoms associated with the gastrointestinal system and the heart have also been reported.

While the virus that causes the illness is absorbed almost exclusively through the lungs, “one of the striking things about COVID is … it affects every system of the body,” said Katz, a professor of community health sciences and family medicine at the U of M.

A stay in the intensive care unit on its own — for any condition — can also leave a person recovering for months, he said.

That leads to a challenge in determining if a patient has long COVID, “or was the subsequent condition just because you were in an ICU for a very long time and your body shut down and you were very, very sick?” he said.

Dr. Alan Katz is a professor of community health sciences and family medicine at the University of Manitoba and part of a research team looking into long COVID in the province. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Katz said by uncovering more about long COVID, research like his aims to help the health-care system prepare, doctors diagnose and treat their patients, and people understand what they’re experiencing.

He urged people to seek medical help if they think they have long COVID.

“There’s no drug, but there are other things that we can do to help patients deal with it and help them recover,” he said.

Looking forward

Though the virus brought him near death, Kapilik said with two vaccinations and a booster dose, he’s now less worried about it than he once was.

“I think I would like for people to know that there is recovery even out of the darkest place COVID could bring you. There’s a chance. There’s a possibility,” he said.

A man and woman pose for a photo.
Kapilik poses with his wife, Melanie. He says he’s grateful for all the support he had while in hospital. (Submitted by Melanie Mazor Kapilik)

Still, he said he wants people to know it’s a serious illness and hopes they remain diligent — if not just for themselves, for health-care workers like the ones who saved his life.

“We really need to listen to what people working in the hospitals need right now because, you know, we’re not out of this. There’s going to inevitably be something … else,” he said.

Kapilik said he tries not to overthink why he was able to come back from the brink when so many others didn’t.

Information Radio – MB21:38Winnipeg school principal who spent months in hospital talks about surviving COVID-19

At one point, Corey Kapilik’s family was brought to his hospital bedside because doctors thought he may not survive COVID-19. After spending four-and-a-half months in hospital and 70 days on a ventilator, the Winnipeg principal talks about surviving COVID, and what it’s like know that the illness is still out there.

But he’s grateful for all the support he had while in hospital, from prayers from his mom’s church and a Sikh temple to elders and friends leaving flags up at sun dance ceremonies.

“There was a lot of prayers from a lot of different people and groups. A lot of positive energy. We worked really hard,” he said. 

“A bit of luck in there, too.”