Struggling to breathe from his hospital bed, Plano Fire Chief Sam Greif Sr. says he doesn’t remember everything about his last 16 days at Medical City Hospital.

But out of the fog, the 57-year-old does recall the distinctive crackling and blare of speakers through the nights. They were from the intensive care unit above his floor. He could hear them as he lay in bed awake and alone, his chest heaving for air.

One by one, patients around him were crashing from complications of COVID-19. They didn’t all make it.

“This virus has robbed a lot of people of their lives,” says Greif, choking back the emotion that rattled in his voice. “So many people have it way worse than I do and I refuse to make it about poor me.”

He was thinking about his wife and two granddaughters and son, who is a fire lieutenant in the Fort Worth Fire Department. “I just look forward to the time when I can hug them again,” he says.

Greif finally got that chance Monday as the staff at Medical City Plano and his family of Plano firefighters lined up to cheer his release. Masked and wearing an oxygen canula on his nose, he rolled out of the hospital in a wheelchair to the long tearful embrace of his wife, Rosemary, who would hold up signs to greet her husband outside his hospital room during the days he struggled just to catch his breath.

She got to bring him home as an early 25th anniversary gift. But first his firefighters wanted to photograph him in front of a big red fire truck from Plano Fire Department, which he plans to return to after a few more weeks of recovery at home. “This was harder than anything I’ve been through,” Greif said through tears. “Thank you to everyone for being with me and giving me my health.”

The virus

His symptoms started the Monday after Christmas.

He’d been given the COVID vaccine that day. As a frontline worker, Greif wanted to make sure he was protected from the deadly virus. His doctor told him to expect some mild symptoms from the shot. That night he began feeling “weird.” He had chills and a slight fever. He took a shower and went to bed. The next morning he went to work at the fire station. 

But that afternoon he was feeling worse, with more chills, fever and a headache. He went home to fight off what he thought was a reaction to the shot.

That Tuesday night his fever rose even higher. By Wednesday morning, his wife was contacting the doctor, who sent him to McKinney for a COVID test. He tested positive. 

“In no way do I want people to think the vaccine made me sick,” Greif says. “It looks like I contracted the virus before I even got the shot.”

Sure enough, his wife tested positive as well. “We think she had it before me, the weekend before I got it,” he says. 

It just so happened the Saturday before Christmas was the first time in 18 years that Mountain Cedar had set record highs in the area and she was coughing. She assumed she was having a bad sinus weekend. But it was COVID. 

“She was lacking energy and coughing but she held up pretty well,” Greif says. “It  looks like it went from her to me. The craziest thing is if I had gotten the shot just a week earlier I may have prevented all this.”

The Plano fire chief (on the left) with his wife and son | Courtesy of the Greif family

Virus complications

Throughout that Wednesday and Thursday between Christmas and New Years, Greif kept getting sicker. He took precautions at home to stay away from his family. His doctor began treating him aggressively with steroids and antibiotics. 

His doctor sent an X-ray tech to Greif’s home to check his lungs, but they were clear. They tried to get an experimental infusion of a drug but with the holiday weekend quickly approaching, he wasn’t able to get one then.

As Greif’s symptoms worsened, his doctor kept in touch with him, calling several times a day. He put him on a pulse oximeter to measure Greif’s oxygen levels. As his readings kept getting lower, his doctor then sent oxygen supplementation equipment to Greif’s home, hoping to help ward off the symptoms.

The chief rang in the new year on oxygen therapy at home. But by that Sunday, Jan. 3, his fever had gotten higher and his oxygen had dropped to dangerous levels. His doctor sent an ambulance to the house to pick him up and take him to Medical City Hospital Plano where a CT scan showed he had bilateral pneumonia.

“Doctors told me it was like my lungs got in a bar fight and they were losing,” Greif says. “Despite all the precautions we took, this virus was getting ahead of me quickly. They were clear one day and a few days later they weren’t.”

A viral battle 

In the hospital, the doctors put the chief on steroids and a cocktail of medicines. An oxygen air flow machine pumped high volumes of air and oxygen into his body and he was treated with convalescent plasma.

His doctors said firefighters, who are often exposed to smoke, are especially at risk of respiratory complications from the virus.

Greif says he plans to donate his plasma as soon as he can in hopes of helping someone else. But first he plans to get the second vaccine dose as soon as possible. He is encouraging all his firefighters to get the vaccine, too. 

“This virus is real and hideous and no one is immune from it,” he says. “The gift of a vaccine is a lifesaver. Don’t turn it down. Take it. It’s our chance to stop the spread and go back to living our lives like all Americans know it. We are real close.”

He described the virus like a Trojan horse, hiding and ready for a sneak attack.

“It’s not like the flu where if you are not feeling good you lie down and stay away from people and others want to stay away from you,” he says. “With COVID, at first you feel good with no symptoms whatsoever but you still might have it. Then you go hug or shake hands and you can die from it or you can take it to a relative and they die from it.”

He emphasizes the importance of wearing a mask. Is it inconvenient? It can be, like waiting in traffic, the chief said, but with a little patience you soon work your way up to the beginning of the line.

He says we have to take this virus seriously. He’s glad his doctors were there for him.

“Wear a mask, take the vaccine, and continue to be a good neighbor,” he says. “It’s like holding the door open. How difficult is it?  A little human kindness goes a long way.”

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News,...