‘Fired up Chief’ shares COVID survival story, message of resilience with 18th Air Force staff

  • Published
  • By Capt. Alexis Burdon
  • 18th Air Force Public Affairs

During an 18th Air Force staff resiliency discussion Oct. 30, 2020, retired Chief Master Sergeant Juan Lewis shared his message of resilience after battling a near-fatal COVID-19 diagnosis this past spring.

Lewis, who some may know better by his Facebook moniker ‘The Fired Up Chief’, met virtually with the staff and shared his message of hope in the face of adversity.

Lewis spoke about how his entire life took a 180 degree turn back in April.

“I got back from a run in April and felt great,” he said. “But when I looked at my watch I saw it was three minutes slower than my usual pace.”

Thinking nothing of it other than the fact that it may be time to retire his seemingly broken watch, he carried on with life as normal.

“A couple days later I was on a walk with my wife when she asked me why I was breathing so hard and walking so slow,” he said. “I was so confused wondering what she was talking about, but she insisted I was different and needed to go to the doctor.”

He said he and his wife visited a clinic in the Netherlands near where they lived in Germany to receive medical care.

When they arrived, the medical teams tested the amount of oxygen in his blood. After looking at the numbers, the medical experts’ facial expressions turned to concern as they communicated to him that his blood oxygen level was 85.

“I don’t know anything about oxygen levels so when I heard 85 I had no idea what that meant,” he said. “All I knew was if I got an 85 on my WAPS test I’d already be down at clothing sales buying my new set of stripes, so I thought that must be pretty good.”

Unfortunately his positive outlook was incorrect and the medical team said his wife needed to take him to the emergency room immediately.

It was there he found out he had COVID-19.

His experience in the hospital was tough. He was placed on oxygen and faced a steep uphill battle of survival.

“There were many times during my hospital stay that I wanted to give up,” he said. “I wanted to be taken away from all the pain and just be at peace again, but all the support I received inspired me to keep going.”

He had a long road to recovery but after 10 days in the ICU, he found out he was being released to a rehab facility to work to regain the fine motor skills the virus took away from him.

“One of the days I was in the rehab facility a nurse came up to me with a look of shock,” he said. “She said she remembered seeing me in the ICU and she never thought she’d see me alive again.”

He said that moment really put life into perspective again and reminded him how lucky he was to be alive.

After 17 days in the rehab facility, he was released back to his home.

His enthusiasm for being home was short lived, however. Days after his return home, he was at the doctor again.

His doctor confirmed he was now battling a serious heart condition forcing him into exploratory surgery.

After the surgery he was disappointed to find out they didn’t have a clear diagnosis for his situation. His heart was only beating at 40%, but the medical team had no distinguishable reason as to why, short of side effects from COVID-19.

Nearly six months after his original diagnosis, Lewis is still suffering with exhaustion and memory issues. His lungs have suffered severe scar tissue from COVID, but he’s just happy to be alive.

“It could be a lot worse,” he said.

He looks back on his experience with COVID as one of life’s tests.

“Since I’m always telling others to be positive and resilient, this was a test for me to see if I practice what I preach,” he said.

The situation taught the retired chief many lessons and gave him a newfound appreciation for life and his family. He’s grateful to be alive and continues working every day to be just a little bit better and a little bit healthier.

And through it all, this proud veteran continues his love and joy for the Air Force and delivered one final remark:

“I’m fired up about the Air Force and I’m fired up about you!”