Family awaits father's homecoming after COVID-19 battle

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Two of the most important moments in Mandy Beckerson's life came when she gave birth to her two children. A third happened when she took her dad to the hospital three months ago.

Beckerson went to her parents' Dearborn Heights' house on March 29 and waved to her dad, Rich Beckerson, from outside rather than going inside, because the novel coronavirus was spreading in Michigan. Two weeks earlier, he had been showing symptoms of the virus but couldn't get a test.

Rich Beckerson, 74, of Dearborn Heights gets a visit Friday, June 19, 2020, at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital from wife Becky, left, daughter Mandy Beckerson, 39, and granddaughter Trinity Gilliam, 16. Rich is preparing to go home in a few weeks after a long battle with COVID-19.

Now she could see through the window that his legs were yellow, his skin was gray and he needed immediate medical care.

Mandy and her 74-year-old father put on face masks and gloves and got into his Ford Focus. She jumped into the driver's seat and he wedged his 6-foot-2, 275-pound frame into the back seat.

On the way to St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital, he helped navigate because he's driven the route many times as a season-ticket holder and avid fan of the University of Michigan football team. She told him how much she adored him and was grateful to be his daughter, in between the "I love you" she said to him dozens of times.

Mandy wasn't sure she'd see her father again when she dropped him off. Rich Beckerson, who was diagnosed with COVID-19, almost died three times in hospital but fought back, prevailed over the virus and is preparing to come home a few weeks after Father's Day.

"We are excited to be able to hug him, touch him, love him all over again, thinking at one point, we were not going to be able to do that, thinking at several points, we were not going to be able to do that,” said Mandy, 39. “Now, it’s so exhilarating to know that he beat this. He’s my hero."

The homecoming next month for Rich Beckerson will include a celebration with his wife of 36 years, six children, eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter, and possibly other family and friends.

In the meantime, a few of Beckerson's children plan to take turns visiting him during Father's Day weekend because the hospital allows patients only one visitor per day to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Jason Beckerson, the second-oldest child, is visiting on Saturday, making the journey from his home in Fair Haven, near Port Huron.

Molly Milligan, an ER nurse and childhood friend of Brett Beckerson, was there for the family when they couldn’t go inside the hospital to see Brett's father Rich, whose hand she held at times so he wouldn't be scared.

He said he hasn't seen his father since Thanksgiving.

"It's been way too long," said Jason, 48. "We are extremely excited. He has had a helluva battle."

Brett Beckerson, the youngest child, is driving to Michigan from his home in Washington, D.C., so he can see his dad this weekend, too. He last saw his father at the end of February when he and his then-fiance, Josh Alvarez, were practicing dance steps with his father and mother in anticipation of his wedding.

Brett, 34, said he can't wait. Each time he thought his dad was dying, he organized family conference calls, with hospital employees putting the phone to Rich Beckerson's ear so he could hear everyone say how much they loved him and what he meant to them.

“For Father’s Day, to be able to say that to him now without the same fears is a pretty powerful thing that we are very grateful to be able to do,” Brett Beckerson said. “Two months ago, I was thinking about his eulogy. Now I am thinking about what I can write in his Father’s Day card.”

Rich Beckerson and his wife, Becky, were childhood sweethearts. They met in middle school and dated until they parted ways in 1964 after their senior year at the now-closed Taylor Center High School.

Brett Beckerson, left, and Josh Alvarez got married on March 13, sharing that wedding anniversary date with Brett's parents, Rich and Becky Beckerson.

They both married others and had children, until they found their way back to each other in 1984, blended their family of five children, and had a son, Brett.

Beckerson, a semi-retired car salesman at Village Ford in Dearborn, is an incredible father, his children said. 

Even though he is a huge UM fan and sports fan in general, he cheers for the Michigan State University basketball team because one of his sons, Bobby McKenzie, played for the Spartans.

Beckerson loves telling jokes, making omelets for the family on Sunday mornings and giving bear hugs.

He also loves to tell stories.

"He is the greatest storyteller ever," Jason said.

Rich Beckerson now has a personal, poignant story, one he almost didn't live to tell.

The novel coronavirus began circulating in late 2019 and eventually led to a global pandemic that kept people in their homes, shut down society and claimed the lives of more than 450,000 people, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

But Beckerson emerged as one of the 4.2 million people who had caught the virus and recovered as of mid-June.

His survival was a Herculean battle that included more than a month in the intensive care unit, two intubations, fevers, ice baths, experimental treatments and more.

When Beckerson arrived at the hospital in late March, hospital officials told his family he had jaundice, his liver was shutting down and his lungs were only getting 70% of the oxygen that he needed.

The doctors and nurses prepared the family for the worst. But he made it through.

Before long, he took another turn. A doctor told the family that he might be having a second surge of the virus, something no one had survived. But Beckerson was one of the first hospitalized patients in Michigan to get convalescent plasma and pulled through again.

"Then, his breathing got worse, his fever came back and they had to reintubate him because ... he was starting to die," Brett said.

Hospital officials flipped Rich Beckerson onto his stomach and positioned his body on an angle with his head toward the floor and his feet was in the air to get the most oxygen to his body, his son said. He stayed that way for more than 12 hours.

Beckerson pulled through again.

His hospital physician, Dr. Eugene Liu, said COVID-19 is an unpredictable virus with a lot of nuances and complications, meaning there is no such thing as a typical case.

Because of the long stay at the hospital, Liu said he and Beckerson's care team became close to the family, with many long talks by phone.

Liu remembered the roller coaster of emotions.

"There were literally tears there on some of these conversations when things got serious, and tears of joy later when he got better," Liu said. "He fought through it. He was a fighter. We all advocated for him, both the family and the care teams."

Molly Milligan, an ER nurse at the hospital and childhood friend of Brett, was there for the family when they couldn't go inside. She greeted Rich Beckerson when he arrived, checked on him throughout his illness and held his hand at times so he wasn't scared.  

She also played UM's fight song for him in hopes that he could hear it and reminded him that his family loved him.

She did that because that's what friends do for each other.

"I held Mr. Beckerson's hand because I knew his family couldn't be there to hold it themselves, and if it was my father, I would want him to be comforted, not scared and alone," said Milligan."I had full protective gear so I felt safe enough to do so."

Beckerson has since left the acute care part of the hospital and is in rehabilitation wing, where he is in therapy twice a day to learn how to walk again and perform daily living tasks.

After 70 days apart, Becky Beckerson sees her husband, Rich Beckerson, for the first time in the hospital on June 4, 2020.

His wife has visited him daily since June 4. She had COVID-19, too, but recovered without going to the hospital.

She is thrilled that her husband is coming home soon.

"It feels wonderful that our family is complete," Becky said.

As for Beckerson, he lost 45 pounds and a few months of his life to the virus but said by phone from his hospital bed that he has gained more than he can imagine.

"Everything is better being on the right side of the grass," he said.