The greatest gift

Fourth generation trainer Brian Barnes nearly lost his life to COVID-19 and while his six-week battle isn’t over, yet, he’s just thankful he survived for his wife Jessica — director of racing and breed development at the Indiana Horse Racing Commission — and their children Haylee and Dylan.

by James Platz

The Christmas season is a special time. Witnessing a child’s excitement on Christmas morning, as a parent, is a memory that stays with you forever. This week, Brian Barnes will celebrate the holiday with his wife, Jessica, and their two children, Haylee, 12, and Dylan, 7, but he will do so while 25 miles away in a rehabilitation facility, relegated to connecting via FaceTime. It will be difficult, but the situation could have been so much worse. Six weeks ago, it was uncertain whether the fourth-generation Hoosier horseman would see another Christmas. Stricken with COVID-19, Brian survived the virus, and is now on the long, slow road to recovery.

“Right now we’re taking it on a week-by-week basis,” Jessica said. “We know he’s going to be there through the 30th. He’s just thankful to be here and that he got a second chance.”

Living life one week at a time is a welcomed change for Jessica, director of racing and breed development at the Indiana Horse Racing Commission. For weeks, it seems her life was broken up into hourly increments. Brian’s condition could, and did, change quickly at times. What started as a perceived sinus infection turned out to be the virus that has claimed the lives of 6,944 Hoosiers through Dec.17, and over 300,000 in the United States.

“He just didn’t feel well. We thought it was a sinus infection,” she said. “He didn’t have a high fever. He didn’t have a horrible cough. He didn’t have any of those things. He had a low-grade fever at times, and just was not getting any better.”

Brian was busy breaking babies in early November at the Shelby County Fairgrounds, preparing the 2021 freshman crop for a few owners. Although he felt a little under the weather, he was not concerned. He wore a mask regularly and took the necessary precautions each day. Brian started a Z-Pak to combat the sinus infection, but it was not working as he had hoped.

“I was on my fourth day and I wasn’t getting any better. I was getting worse,” he said. “I was having a hard time breathing. I couldn’t do much before I ran out of breath.”

On Sunday morning, Nov. 8, Jessica drove her husband to Major Hospital near their home in Shelbyville. Due to COVID restrictions, she had to drop him off and could not stay. She waited for word, and later that day, Brian called her with the news that doctors wanted to put him on a ventilator.

“When he was admitted, his oxygen levels were super low, they were like 58 per cent. He was a lot worse than we realized,” she said. “The doctor said his levels were showing that he was heading toward respiratory failure. Brian and I talked, and it was a very tearful conversation. He talked to the kids and told them he loved them. It is a conversation that I wish nobody ever has to have. With COVID, you hear so many things. Somebody goes on a ventilator; you never know whether they’re coming off. We had that conversation not knowing if it was the last one we were going to have.”

Brian would stay on the ventilator for a week. With no opportunity to visit, Jessica routinely called for updates, checking in first thing in the morning, mid-afternoon, and before she went to sleep each evening. The progress came in small increments, but it was progress. Six days after admission, Jessica saw Brian for the first time via FaceTime. The children talked to him, but did not see him hooked up to the ventilator.

One week after entering Major Hospital, it was recommended the 54-year-old transfer to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. The move raised concern for Jessica. By 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, Brian had a new home.

“I’m terrified because, obviously he’s not making the improvements they wanted to see. At the same time, you know it’s a bigger hospital and that they have more resources. It was just scary because you don’t know,” she said.

The medical staff tweaked Brian’s medication, and he continued to improve. By Thursday, Nov. 19, there was discussion about removing the ventilator. At six o’clock that night, Jessica received a call from the nurse on duty. Off the ventilator, but in a weakened state, Brian managed to get out “Hi” over the phone. It was a significant milestone.

“Lots of tears, lots of thankfulness. We got to FaceTime the next day,” said Jessica. “The nurses were great. A lot of times he wasn’t well enough to have his own phone, so these nurses were using their personal devices or hospital devices.”

While it was a major step toward his recovery, Brian was not out of the woods yet. Due to his time on the ventilator, he experienced delirium. He recognized his wife and children, but did not know where he was or why he was there. Even his kids noted he was not acting normal, but the staff reassured Jessica that it was only temporary. Brian continued to mend, and two weeks after admission, he moved out of the ICU.

Continuing to check in regularly, Jessica learned the following Tuesday that the team was monitoring her husband’s kidney function and blood pressure. His blood pressure had dipped repeatedly, but staff told her it could be symptomatic of COVID-19. Brian had endured the worst of COVID-19, but now a new threat emerged. Wednesday morning, Nov. 25 started at 3:30 a.m. with a call from Methodist Hospital.

“They told me that his blood pressure was bottoming out and he oxygen needs were going up a bit. I think I eventually went back to sleep, but when I woke up and called, he was back in ICU,” she said. “His kidney function was declining drastically to the point of kidney failure. They didn’t know what was going on. They were checking for sepsis. They discovered he had a bleed somewhere.”

Unbeknownst to anyone, Brian had a hematoma toward the back of his abdomen. As best they can determine, it more than likely developed when he was breaking babies, as he previously complained of his back hurting after a day at the barn. When given blood thinners, the hematoma began to bleed, causing Brian to go into hypovolemic shock from the excessive blood loss. While doctors searched for answers, Jessica logged onto Facebook and made a plea for prayers.

A CAT scan revealed the hematoma and Brian received a round of dialysis that same day. He was given two units of blood, with an additional unit on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. His body responded to the treatment, and he again improved. On Sunday, Nov. 29, the day he should have celebrated his 17th wedding anniversary with his bride, Brian moved out of the ICU again, this time for good. Fortunately, many of the events detailed above he only knows due to conversations with Jessica. He does not remember any of what transpired for three weeks. One event during his final week at Methodist, however, is clear in Brian’s mind.

“The Friday before I was moved to rehab, I was laying there at four o’clock in the morning, and one of the nurses said, ‘Buddy, you made it. You’re one of the few, but you made it. From where you were to now, you won.’ I remember that distinctly.”

Brian transferred to Community Rehabilitation Hospital South in Greenwood on Sunday, Dec. 6. Jessica and her children drove there that day to deliver clothes he would need. Once there, she learned he had yet to arrive at the facility. The family sat in the parking lot hoping to catch a glimpse of the ambulance.

“I figured they would take him to a back or side door. They pulled around to the front door. I got out of my car and I stood there. They are taking him out of the ambulance, and he looks over and says to the person with him, ‘Hey, that’s my wife.’ The EMT looks over at me and I start crying. I said, ‘Hi, we just wanted to see a glimpse of him if we could. It’s been a long 28 days.’ The EMT said, ‘I understand’ and he motioned that we could come a little closer. We were about 10 feet away from him as they got him out of the ambulance. We got to tell him that we love him, and that he’s going to get better, and he’s got this. That was much needed. That was huge. It took everything I had not to go over there and hug him. But I didn’t want to jeopardize him going into that facility.”

The reality of being laid up in a bed for 28 days sinks in when attempting to resume life. Upon entering the rehab facility, Brian went through a series of tests, stunned by the initial results as well as the progress made in a short amount of time. His mind was not in a very good place.

“I could hardly remember our address. I couldn’t draw a clock face with the numbers on it. They had a cube, make two squares and three lines. I couldn’t do that. They gave me five words and had me repeat them. I could only do two,” he said. “This Tuesday I took the same test and got everything right. So, I graduated from speech therapy. She showed me the picture and the test from the first day. It was scary; it was really scary to see what I had lost and what has come back.”

One of the greatest challenges for Brian is the physical therapy. Confined to a hospital bed for a month, his body has atrophied dramatically and now the task at hand is building up his strength.

“It is pretty humbling when you’ve been able to do anything in life on your own, now I can’t walk. Wednesday they got me up on my feet and I stood up. I didn’t stand up very long. You wouldn’t believe the satisfaction I had. I stood there five minutes and then six minutes,” Brian said. “But, I did get up and walk a little yesterday (Thursday), with the help of a harness under me. I probably walked 40 steps. It’s a humbling experience when they give you a two-pound weight and you can’t lift it up. Two pounds. It’s a long process.”

The difficulty for Brian is in not seeing his family. FaceTime calls allow them to stay in touch, but it does not replace being present with Jessica and the kids.

“It’s tough, really tough. Really, really, really tough,” he said. “The bottom line is I’m going to get to see them again. At one time, we didn’t know if that was going to happen.”

The pandemic has made life difficult for many, but the Barnes family has dealt with other adversity over the last 13 months. Last November, Brian lost his father, Harold. When Harrah’s Hoosier Park first opened, the father-son duo claimed the leading trainer and driver titles. They worked in concert together for many years. Jessica also experienced loss when her mother, Jera Larkins, passed away in March.

As difficult as this latest trial has proven, it has changed the couple’s perspective. If placed in the same situation others may have asked, “Why me?” Brian and Jessica have not questioned. Instead, the situation has helped them see things in a different light.

“Being in an industry, and especially in my job with the commission, you hear so much about the negatives in this industry. There is so much focus on all of the negative that it’s hard not to get caught up in that,” said Jessica, who has worked at the IHRC since 1997. “The outpouring of support from this industry, the calls, the cards, the texts, people pitching in to help and do things has been overwhelming, in a good way. It reminds you how very special the people are that are part of this industry, and how it really is a family. I’m just thankful.”

Recently, Jessica learned that her husband would probably need a wheelchair when discharged, requiring a ramp leading into their home. When a friend put out a note regarding the need, two men from Infamous Few Shelby Co. motorcycle club showed up and built a ramp, no questions asked. Their only request: pay it forward someday.

For Brian, after 37 years in the racing business, horses may not carry the same importance as before.

“My whole perspective of life, whole value of life, is completely different,” he said. “The horses are the least of my worries. They are not top priority. Before, they were pretty high up on the totem pole. My whole perspective has changed.”

Aside from that chance encounter outside the rehab center, the Barnes family has not been together since Nov. 8. That highly-anticipated day won’t come until sometime in early 2021. Brian wishes the progress was faster, as he is motivated to return home.

“My therapists said I’ve made a lot of improvement. I’m not going to quit. I’m not afraid to work,” he said. “I’m just lucky to be alive, and I get to see my kids.”