After 549 days in 9 hospitals and facilities with Covid-19, this man is finally home

Donnell Hunter smiles at a long-term acute care facility in New Mexico on February 17, 2022.

(CNN)In the last year and a half, Donnell Hunter has missed his daughter's first day of kindergarten, his son's standout season of youth football, the birth of his grandson and countless other memories, all because of his long battle against Covid-19.

The 43-year-old spent 549 days in hospitals and long-term acute care facilities after falling ill with Covid-19 in September 2020, well before vaccines were available, his family said. He finally made it home to Roswell, New Mexico, on Friday.
"I don't take anything for granted, that's for sure. I went 550 days without seeing my kids, I have a grandson that I hadn't met and that is the big thing," Donnell told CNN on Monday.
    "I love my family, my kids and my wife more than I love myself. So when I would fight, I would fight for them," the father of seven said.
      Donnell is one of the 4.5 million Americans who have been hospitalized due to Covid-19 since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started tracking hospitalizations in August 2020. His story is unusual. The average length of hospital stay for adults was 5.5 days during Omicron, compared to 8 days last winter and 7.6 days during Delta, according to the CDC.
      Donnell's medical bills are still coming in, and the latest hospital bill was over $1 million alone, according to the family. With Donnell yet unable to breathe fully on his own due to the lingering effects of his Covid-19 complications, the family is now adjusting to their new life.

      'I thought I could just fight it off'

        Donnell, who worked as a plant operator at a gas company, was at work in September 2020 when he started having trouble breathing.
        "Our shift was seven on, seven off, and I happened to be on graveyard and I just, I couldn't breathe," he said. It was so bad, he asked his boss for a ride to the hospital in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he said he "first found out that I was positive for Covid."
        He went home, but within 24 hours, he was back in the hospital, breathless. "I thought I could just fight it off, but there was no way," Donnell said.
        The hospital staff initially told his wife, Ashley Hunter, they could handle his care. Hours later, she got the call that he was being flown to a larger hospital in Albuquerque, a more than three-hour drive away.
        A week later, Ashley was helping her children with online schoolwork when she called her husband for help with a math question.
        "He didn't answer," the 34-year-old said. "I called the hospital and they told me that they had intubated him and put him on the ventilator."
        Donnell's youngest, 4-year-old Aariyah, looks into her father's window at a care facility in July 2021.

        'I would only cry in the shower'

        Seeing her husband in that state over a video call was heartbreaking to Ashley.
        Donnell had always worked to stay he