Joe Freudenberger has seen many COVID-19 patients inside OakBend Medical Center in Richmond.
The pandemic recently hit even closer to home for OakBend’s 59-year-old CEO, who is in the midst of recovering from his own battle with the disease. And though he has been asymptomatic since July 23, the longtime executive said it was not an easy diagnosis to hear.
“I was scared,” he said of receiving his diagnosis July 12. “I kind of felt like … this could be my death.”
Freudenberger, who said he had been wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, said he awoke with aches and pains July 8. He initially associated them with back problems, brushing them aside as he went about his work from home.
Just a few days later, however, he began developing a sore throat and severe cough, leading him to believe something more was at play. Then he got tested for COVID-19.
Freudenberger said his battle against it remains in its final stages.
“I had to kind of get my head back in the right place and decide that I was going to fight through it,” he said. “Whatever it was going to bring, it would bring.”
Fort Bend County had reported 7,287 cases of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus strain, as of Tuesday. At least 100 county residents have died from the disease, while 3,497 patients have recovered, according to the county.
Following contact tracing, Freudenberger said he discovered he was likely exposed to the virus from his eldest son during an indoor family dinner in early July. His wife and son both eventually tested positive as well.
From there, Freudenberger said it was mind over matter in dealing with the disease. He continued to perform his daily duties as OakBend’s highest executive officer and go on daily walks with his wife – among other activities – throughout the last several weeks while they self-quarantined.
“It takes a positive view of the future to comply with what you have to do. Otherwise you’ll just give up,” he said. “You’ve got to stay positive the whole way through so you do the right things and get better. If you don’t have a positive outlook, you won’t do as well. I literally just made the decision to stop worrying.”
However, that mantra was not always easy to live out. About a week-and-a-half following the diagnosis, he said lethargy and difficulty breathing threatened to hinder his recovery. Even now, Freudenberger said he continues to struggle with recovering the strength that COVID-19 sapped from him, while his wife is slowly building back up her endurance for her weekly exercise classes.
But he refused – and refuses – to let it win.
“I woke up and said, ‘I’m not going to let this thing dominate my every waking moment.’ My focus was just on today. I was going to take what I had, do the best I could with it, and deal with tomorrow as it comes,” he said. “… Once I got past the idea that this thing could be my death and would deal with whatever comes, I started to feel better. But it’s not a fun bug to have, I’ll tell you that.”
As the CEO of a medical center, Freudenberger sees sick patients all the time. And as the pandemic has continued to impact the Houston region, he said in a video posted to OakBend’s Facebook page July 30 that their beds have been filled with anywhere from 30-50 COVID-19 patients at any one time over the last few months.
But it was different seeing the virus impact himself along with his wife and son, who he said are now both asymptomatic and in good spirits. And as someone who possesses no known underlying health conditions that would make him or his family high-risk patients, yet still caught the virus, he said it remains vitally important to be vigilant.
“I’ve seen a lot of people at the hospital you wouldn’t think of as high-risk getting very sick. There’s some genetic things some of us don’t even know about that make us susceptible to the disease,” he said. “Assume anybody in a group of folks might be a carrier – whether knowingly or unknowingly. If I had acted as if one of my sons had the bug, I would’ve insisted we eat outside instead of in the house.”
In the end, Freudenberger said the most important factor in his recovery has been focusing on one day at a time and what he needs to do to get better. If that happens, he said, there is a light at the end of tunnel.
“Together we’ll get through this,” he said in the video. “And we’ll be stronger for it.”