After spending 32 days in ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah battling complications from COVID-19, Ripon Area Fire District Chief Tim Saul was released today (Monday), receiving a hero’s welcome when he returned home.

Soon after the fire chief’s truck pulled into his driveway, he was greeted by a parade of emergency personnel from around the area.

Although Saul was released from the hospital Monday, he has a long road to full recovery with a regime of physical therapy and strength building ahead.

Saul was diagnosed with COVID-19 Monday, Dec. 7 and by Wednesday of that week “he was not doing well,” so he went in for a chest X-Ray, said his wife Renee Saul.

By Friday, she said the family “knew something was wrong” and that they needed to get Saul to the hospital.

Looking back, Saul can “only recall so much” because the virus “really knocked me out.” He described feeling extremely fatigued with difficulty breathing.

“Breathing was probably the biggest thing,” Saul said. “If it gets in your lungs and you get pneumonia, it’s a battle.”

After being admitted to the hospital Dec. 11, his condition worsened and at one point he recalled being only 24 hours away from requiring ventilation, which was worrying.

“If I went on a ventilator, chances are I wasn’t going to come out,” Saul said. “I fought to stay off it.”

Likewise, Renee noted there were times when Saul “was on the verge of not coming out of this.”

But he kept fighting and he didn’t give up because he wanted to be reunited with his family and firefighters at home.

“It's been a battle and it's going to continue to be a battle,” Saul said. “I wasn't going to stop; I wanted to fight through it.”

And that’s exactly what he did with the help of medical professionals at ThedaCare, who Saul describes as “true heroes.”

Throughout Saul’s stay in the hospital, Renee and their son, Andy, could only communicate with nurses and doctors over the phone and had to visit Saul digitally through FaceTime.

“That was probably the hardest thing; we were supposed to carry on with everything, like nothing was going on with them,” Renee said. “We were able to FaceTime him and see him, but it's nothing like being there.”

Saul’s battle with COVID-19 took an emotional toll on the family, who were in a state of worry throughout the ordeal.

“Not having him here was hard,” Renee said. “He's always here and then, all of a sudden, he's not for so long.”

Likewise, Andy also felt the emotional impact of knowing his father was battling a life-threatening disease.

“Just knowing that he's somewhere else because he's not doing OK, that was, I think, the hardest thing for me,” Andy said.

Over the last few days, Renee was able to visit her husband in the hospital to learn how to change Saul’s oxygen tanks and to prepare for taking care of him at home.

During Saul’s fight against coronavirus, Renee noted the local “fire family” stepped up to support his family and provide well wishes to the fire chief.

“The fire family was a huge support; they were there if we needed anything,” she said. “If our car died and we needed to jump [it], they were there.”

“You could have never met them before, but they'll do just about anything to help you out,” Andy said of the response from the local firefighting community.

When Saul was released from the hospital, ThedaCare hosted a “celebratory exit” with employees lining the hallway, cheering and clapping as he was wheeled out because his battle with COVID-19 was so intense as he was close to receiving ventilation.

“We are incredibly happy to see Chief Saul doing well and going home with his family,” ThedaCare Public Relations Specialist Cassandra Wallace said in an email.

Although COVID-19 has been out of the fire chief’s system since before Christmas, Renee noted the damage the virus has done to his lungs has left a lasting impact.

“We just need to build up his strength [because] he's been in the hospital for 32 days,” she said. “It's just strength building and keeping him healthy.”

She added the family will “live in a bubble for a couple of weeks” and will keep Sweet n' Saulty Ice Cream Parlor closed for about a month to avoid bringing germs into the house because “even the common cold can be detrimental” until Saul is fully recovered.

“We're so excited to have him here,” Renee said. “We have lots of simple activities to do; we're going to work on some puzzles and board games for a while.”

Saul said his recovery will entail physical therapy to regain his strength and breathing exercises, noting he doesn’t expect to return to duty for “another month or two.”

During the fire chief’s absence, the Ripon Area Fire District continued to respond to emergencies as Deputy Chief Mark Sabel and the entire fire district stepped up to continue serving the community.

“The way the whole fire department came together as a team is just second to none,” Saul said.

For Saul, seeing his fellow firefighters welcome him home and to see others step up in his absence was heartwarming.

“The messages and the love, from all the messages I got when I was there to the [emergency personnel parade], it was just phenomenal,” the Ripon fire chief said of the community’s support during his battle with coronavirus.

In returning home, he’s looking forward to spending time with family and being back in a “normal space.”

Saul added that he still doesn’t know how he contracted COVID-19 because he did everything right, from wearing a mask to washing his hands.

“I was very, very careful,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I was safe and that my family was safe. I was one of the most careful people out there.”

Even so, Saul hopes his battle with COVID-19 can serve as a reminder to others to continue taking the virus seriously because its effects can be detrimental.

Joe Schulz served as the reporter of the Green Laker in 2019 and 2020, before being hired as a reporter for the Commonwealth in October 2020. He is from Oshkosh and will be graduating from UW-Oshkosh with a degree in journalism in December.

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