After 6 months, Ewert is cough-free

Staff writer

It happened at a rest stop in Vail, Colorado.

“Who’s that coughing?” the scraggly drunkard asked.

Quite used to the ire and admonitions of strangers by now, Gary Ewert raised his hand: “Me.”

The haggard man approached Ewert and shook his hand. Then came an unexpected edict: “I’m not Jesus,” the stranger said, alcohol fumes emanating from his breath, “but your cough is gone.”

Not even 48 hours later, Ewert’s infamous six-month cough was no more.

A miracle? Perhaps, though it’s more likely the staff at National Jewish Health in Denver deserve credit. After doctors in Marion and Wichita were baffled by his mysterious six-month coughing fit, the nation’s leading respiratory hospital came through for Ewert.

The diagnosis wasn’t some new disease or plague, but rather the apparently potent and toxic combination of acid reflux, nonacid reflux, and vocal chord dysfunction. Ewert was aware he had acid reflux, but had never heard of nonacid reflux and didn’t know his vocal chords weren’t closing like they normally should.

“Those were the most awful six months of my life,” Ewert said.

He received a prescription for an over-the-counter nonacid reflux medicine. Combined with breathing exercises recommended by a speech pathologist, the treatment knocked out Ewert’s cough in a couple days.

When Ewert arrived, the doctors at National Jewish gave him a counter with which he was supposed to tally every cough. Over a period of 24 hours, Ewert coughed 274 times.

“That was pretty good considering I had been coughing a little less than before,” Ewert said.

That was Wednesday, the day of the stranger in Vail. By Saturday, the number of coughs was down to 10.

His condition was such that he could not do anything. He could read a book, but reaching for it would spark the cough temporarily. Only when he made conscious efforts to sit perfectly still could he breathe easy.

One of the National Jewish doctors called a week afterward to check up, and admitted he didn’t know at first whether the hospital would be able to help the Marion resident. Ewert said none of them had heard of a condition like his before.

Though he’s grateful to have a normal life again, Ewert is still sad that six months was, essentially, taken from him. That period included his retirement from teaching.

“I was looking forward to teaching those last units one last time. I had a great group of kids,” he said. “That part is like … it just is missing. It’s almost like I retired in January instead of the end of May.”

Ewert has decided to become a paraeducator at Marion Middle School.

Despite sparse moments of hopelessness and depression, Ewert said his support system — chiefly his wife, Elaine — the community around him, and his faith in God made him feel he would get through it.

“My wife she just was there for me. Never complained,” Ewert said. “She was always just encouraging: ‘You’re gonna make this. We’re gonna be OK.’ I wouldn’t have been able to make it without her.”

His wife’s support and his doctors’ help have Ewert living a normal life again, and he was thankful for them. But the man from Vail has stuck with him.

“It could be the medication and the stuff the doctors did, or it could be this stranger in Vail who shook my hand and told me my cough was gone,” Ewert said. “God comes in a lot of different ways and shapes. I don’t know, but it is kind of strange.”

 

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