South Deerfield restaurant owner overcomes COVID-19 after 80-day hospital stay

  • Jennifer Malo of Granby talks to her partner, Richard Daviau, over FaceTime recently. STAFF PHOTO/MARY BYRNE

  • Richard Daviau, owner of Damn Yankees BBQ in South Deerfield, was most recently at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Richard Daviau, owner of Damn Yankees BBQ in South Deerfield, pours gravy on fries and cheese curds while at work at the restaurant in September of 2019. Daviau is recovering at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough following an 80-day stay at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2020

SOUTH DEERFIELD — For the first time in months, Samantha Daviau felt like she could finally take a breath.

Her father, Richard Daviau, owner of Damn Yankees BBQ on Elm Street in South Deerfield, was released from Baystate Medical Center in Springfield earlier this month after an 80-day stay at the hospital battling COVID-19.

But it wasn’t his initial release that allowed her to breathe again.

“I never actually took a breath, even after I got confirmation he was headed to rehab, until a few days ago when he walked for the first time by himself, on a walker, unaided,” Samantha, 17, said on Sunday. “I was like, this is real. He’s actually going to come home. … He’s going to see me graduate. He’s going to see me get older.”

Speaking from his room at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, Richard, 48, said his time in rehab — both his occupational therapy and physical therapy — is going well.

“I’m already walking 100 feet,” he said. “I can stand on my own without a walker. I can eat on my own. I don’t have to be fed.”

And best of all, he can eat one of his favorites: chocolate ice cream.

Though he was initially told he’d need at least three months of rehab as a result of the length of time he was sedated in the Intensive Care Unit, Richard hopes, based on the progress he’s made so far, he could be out by the end of the month.

“He’s a tough guy,” said Jennifer Malo, his best friend and the mother of his two children, Samantha and Elizabeth, 13.

A constant battle

Richard, who resides in Granby, was admitted to the Emergency Department at Baystate Medical Center on April 13. He recalled going to the hospital because of an intense migraine, feeling pressure on his chest and finding it difficult to breathe.

He doesn’t remember much after that, he said, including getting tested for COVID-19 while he was there. But Malo confirmed he tested positive for the virus shortly after being admitted. It was two months, she said, before he would receive a negative test result for COVID-19.

“What I remember is going in and trying to control my breathing and being on a little bit of oxygen,” Richard said. “I remember them saying if I don’t get my breathing under control, if I don’t get my oxygen level up, I was going to be intubated, and the next thing you know, I was intubated — but I don’t remember being intubated.”

Malo recalled doctors telling her, as they had explained to him at the time, that most people don’t come off intubation, and his chance of survival was about 12%.

“It was a constant battle between grieving him and keeping the faith that he’d be OK,” she said.

Over the course of those 80 days, Richard battled sepsis and three cases of pneumonia. He was placed on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine that bypassed both his heart and lungs, and when his kidneys began to fail, he was placed on dialysis. He battled a fever the entire time.

“Once they did dialysis for him, his heart and his kidneys came back and he bounced right out of it,” Malo said. “From that day forward, he got a little bit better until they could wake him up completely.”

Through all this, the only thing Richard said he remembers while unconscious was his daughter playing him Bob Marley.

“I love reggae,” he said.

Though he wasn’t allowed to have visitors while at the hospital, Richard was visited daily by family and friends via video conferencing.

“Thank God for that,” he said.

Malo said the hospital set up a system as a result of the pandemic that let Richard’s family and friends call him at a time coordinated with the help of hospital staff.

“We could talk to him, we could sing music for him,” Malo said.

The South Deerfield community, too, was a huge support system for Richard and his family.

“Somebody shows up to mow the lawn (at the restaurant) for him,” Malo said. “Somebody came to fix the fryolator. … Somebody came and parked a giant truck with an (American) flag.”

A dishwasher also was recently donated to the restaurant, she added, and a family friend organized a GoFundMe at bit.ly/3erhFLd to cover Richard’s medical expenses and the care of Samantha and Elizabeth. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than $19,400 had been raised toward the $25,000 goal.

“The community has been outstanding,” Richard said.

Likewise, Malo said the employees at Damn Yankees BBQ, which will be two years old in November, have been “amazing” throughout the ordeal, helping to keep the business running while Richard is away.

Encouraging precautions

Richard, who is 48 years old, had no pre-existing health conditions, according to Malo. He was a healthy man.

The South Deerfield restaurant owner said he has no idea where he might have come into contact with COVID-19, but from his bed at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital on Sunday, he urged others to take the precautions more seriously than he did.

“I mocked this virus at first,” he said. “I was like … ‘It ain’t going to hit me.’ You know how you always say, ‘That won’t happen to me?’ That was me. I said that. And then, look at where I am.”

For as much as he’s progressed physically since leaving the hospital, Richard said he hasn’t been sleeping well.

“I have a lot of nightmares,” he said. “Very vivid. And then it’s hard to fall back asleep.”

Even as the state begins to open, he said, people should wear masks, wash their hands and avoid going out unless absolutely necessary.

“This is a time to get reconnected,” Richard said. “This is a time to put down the electronics and get to know your family members better. I just wish I could be at home to do all that.”

His family and friends, however, are simply grateful he beat the odds.

“I’m just grateful he’s here, every day,” Malo said, calling Richard a “miracle man.” “I have to remind myself sometimes he’s still here and that we didn’t lose him.”

“And we’re not going to,” Samantha added.