Great Barrington veteran survives 117 days on ventilator in COVID-19 battle

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Jesse Hankey finally might be coming home.

More than four months ago, he went to a hospital. And he hasn't been home since.

This retired Great Barrington native — he once was a Marine Corps machine gunner in the Vietnam War — is emerging from the battle of his life. The enemy that kept the 72-year-old on a respirator for 117 days: COVID-19.

His family says it knows why he survived.

"It was his will to want to live," said Tom Hankey, one of his two sons. "When I brought him to the ER, he point blank told the doctor, `I'm not ready to die.' It was his will to want to come home to us."

That, and lots of praying, said family members, who are hopeful that Jesse Hankey — cribbage fanatic, bowling regular, Yankees fan and lover of the outdoors — will be released in the next few weeks from Hillcrest Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, where he was transferred June 29.

It will depend on how well his breathing continues, and the regaining of strength lost after so much time in a hospital bed. Doctors removed his tracheotomy tube Thursday and replaced it with a smaller one in case any problems return.

He is talking now, after having to use a voice box. And his perception and thinking are strong.

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"His mind is very sharp," said his son.

Jesse Hankey was one of the earliest known coronavirus patients in Berkshire County, and the first known in Great Barrington. Like the others, he hadn't traveled. And his tale begins when the county was growing into an early hot spot for infections in the state and was scrambling to contain them.

On March 3, Hankey, who previously suffered from diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, had grown weak and dehydrated. His son, Tom, brought him to Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. After chest X-rays, he was sent home with a vague diagnosis. Maybe it was pneumonia, doctors said.

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On March 6, after he had stopped eating and had grown even weaker, his son brought him to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

Doctors placed him on a ventilator the next day. It took three tests the next week to confirm that he was positive for COVID-19. From there, survival was dicey. Problems included kidney failure and dialysis.

Eventually, he was weaned from the breathing machine and stepped down from the intensive care unit. It was then that his improvement sped up, said his sister, Juanita O'Rourke. And it was about this time that he once again declared his will to live, she added.

"Every single person I've talked to about my brother — his ability to fight has given them hope," she said. "He's such an inspiration to so many people."

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During the worst of the ordeal, the family, including his wife, Eleanor, needed privacy to grapple with the crisis, and so it didn't spread word of his condition beyond close family and friends. But, family members are grateful for all the support and prayers from those who knew, and they are hoping for some fanfare and a big celebration in town to welcome home their fighter.

After all, Jesse Hankey has lived in Great Barrington his whole life. He retired from Lee Lime, where he operated machinery at the quarry.

He bowls three nights a week at the family's lanes in town, and shoots pool on two. He golfs, plays cards and loves his motorcycles — he has three. He's a boater and camper but no longer hunts.

And, "He's a big cribbage player," Tom Hankey said, laughing.

The family had its own ordeal, especially since a pandemic meant that it couldn't visit him in the hospital.

"It was a lot of prayers, and knowing my dad — he's a fighter and he just needed a chance," Tom Hankey said. "We were giving him every chance we could."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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