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Jeff Blocker

Plant City local celebrates annual "Alive-a-versary" at Brandon Hospital and the strawberry fields

March 25, 2024
Jeff Blocker standing in a strawberry field smiling.

Strawberries from nearby Plant City farms, coffee and all the fixings arrive at the nurse’s station on the fourth floor of the green tower, which served as the COVID-19 ICU three years ago. Jeff Blocker, a former patient, returns to visit the hardworking nurses at HCA Florida Brandon Hospital. He says it is well deserved.  

He celebrates his annual “Alive-a-versary” with Brandon Hospital caregivers and his friend, Liz Gagnon, and he credits both with saving his life. He also calls it the "Apology tour" with a grin since Jeff reflects that he wasn't the easiest patient. Now that he has his health and sense of humor back, Jeff is very grateful.

Before COVID-19 set him back, "life of the party" was something Jeff may have heard a time or two and admits to overindulging over the years.

This traumatic event inspired Jeff to take charge of his health and reign in a couple of unhealthy habits. He jokes, "Who knew you could lose weight if you actually counted your calories and exercised?"

Jeff is also quick to share his gratitude for his renewed life, as Liz calls it. “I’m very fortunate. Lots of little things contributed to me still being here, like Liz stepping in and the caregivers at Brandon Hospital never giving up. I believe in enjoying today more than ever,” shares Jeff.

“To have a patient come back and express their gratitude for our team’s efforts every year means the world to us. It reminds us of our positive impact on patients like Jeff. He was able to return to enjoying his life,” said Kyle Thrift, chief nursing officer at Brandon Hospital.

Allergy Symptoms escalate… confusing the symptoms

Three years ago, Jeff thought he was suffering from allergies when he walked out his front door and saw his truck covered with a yellow haze. All the annoying symptoms—cough, nasal drip, and aches—announced the arrival of allergy season. Jeff didn’t let it slow him down.

He was out in the strawberry fields of Plant City doing what he has done for twenty years in February. Outfitted for long days with his baseball cap, cargo pants, and work boots, he was looking at strawberries, assessing where they were in their growth and making harvest estimates.

As a “berry broker” (yes, berry broker, lucky guy) for California Giant Berry Farms, he covers the Southeast, from Plant City to southern Georgia, managing quality assurance and production of strawberries, blueberries and blackberries.

It is a busy job, especially during the height of strawberry season. Every day, he admits, it was getting a bit harder to keep up with the daily demands as usual. He was becoming more and more exhausted.

ER diagnosis of COVID-19

On the evening of February 27, after a long week, Jeff decided he needed to go home and try to get some rest. His friend Liz stepped in and said, “it’s time to go to the ER.” She had been hearing about how he felt all week and she was becoming increasingly concerned.

Although Jeff's memories are foggy due to feeling so poorly at the time, he does recall that the physician at HCA Florida Plant City Emergency said that his scans were the worst he had ever seen. Those words still stick with him.

After a chest x-ray and testing, Jeff was diagnosed with COVID-19 and admitted to HCA Florida Brandon Hospital. Jeff remembers arriving at the hospital late at night.

Fighting for his Life

Jeff was an inpatient for two weeks at Brandon Hospital. He steadily declined, and Liz was told to prepare for the worst.

To save his life, Jeff needed to be intubated; a tube was placed in his airway so that oxygen could be provided, and he was very reluctant.

Liz stepped in again and made Jeff make her a promise in a grim moment he will never forget. Jeff gets a bit choked up when he shares, "Liz said ‘I will only fight if you promise me you will fight’," and Jeff agreed.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Liz was not able to visit Jeff, so she called the nurse’s desk regularly to get updates on his condition. “The nurses picked up immediately, and they knew my name. They were never too busy to take the time to give me an update on Jeff’s condition, and they kept me sane. I have no words. They were absolutely phenomenal,” said Liz.

As Jeff struggled, a nurse practitioner at Brandon Hospital researched a drug that was making a difference. She called the manufacturer and was able to have it sent overnight.

Jeff went from being next on the list to be put on ECMO to no longer being eligible because his health improved so dramatically.

Before he knew it, he was in physical therapy pushing himself. But it would be a long road to recover. It took him a year to fully regain his strength.

He remembers his first trip to the mailbox at the end of his driveway when he returned exhausted. He is proud to share that he has trimmed down to close to his ideal weight and walks three to four days a week.

The “Alive-a-versary”

Jeff's Alive-a-versary at Brandon Hospital with friend, Liz Gagnon

It takes Jeff a moment to quietly state how grateful he is to his caregivers. The pause and emotion in his thank you are heartfelt.

It is why he remembers and celebrates that he is alive every year. It is the reason why he brings the best strawberries from our local fields, some coffee and goodies to the hospital. It is his way of expressing his gratitude.

Liz shares that along with Jeff’s fun personality, he has the kindest heart, and his thoughtful annual thank you to his caregivers is just who Jeff is: grateful.

March 25, 2024
HCA Florida Brandon Hospital

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