Turf scientist on the mend from coronavirus

Ohio State’s Karl Danneberger, Ph.D., tells of his road to recovery, the health care workers who saved his life, and the outpouring of turf industry support.


Filed to: Coronavirus, Ohio

Karl Danneberger family

Perhaps a consoling aspect of the harrowing battle Karl Danneberger, Ph.D., waged with COVID-19 is that he doesn’t remember any of it. Most of what he knows of his ordeal has been recounted to him by his wife, Sallie.

“I don’t have any real recollection,” says Danneberger (far right in photo, with Sallie and their sons, Marc and Kyle), a turfgrass professor and researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus. “I slept through it, for lack of a better term. I slept through the worst of it, but my wife, my family and my friends had to go through this.”

Danneberger remembers this: On March 11, a Wednesday, he felt fine as he went about his workday at the office. By that weekend, he had developed a low-grade fever and had begun to cough a little. His temperature rose, and he started to have difficulty breathing.

On March 16, Sallie was concerned enough that she called Karl’s doctor.

“They heard me having difficulty breathing and told her to take me to the ER at Ohio State,” says Danneberger, a 25-year educator member of GCSAA and regular contributor to GCM’s research section. “They diagnosed me with COVID-19 within about 48 hours. I think I was either the first or second person in that hospital with it.”

Before long, he was put on a ventilator and moved to the intensive care unit.

“According to everybody, that following weekend, I wasn’t doing very well,” Danneberger says. “I had gotten pneumonia. Of course, I was out. I wasn’t aware of anything. Almost two weeks after that, I was taken off the ventilator. I woke up and wondered where I was, what had happened.”

What he couldn’t have known at the time was that after his first few hours in the hospital, Sallie hadn’t been allowed to visit. Because she had been exposed, she was sent home and put on a 28-day quarantine. Sallie would receive daily calls from the hospital doctors and nurses — the latest coming at 9 p.m. — updating her on her husband’s health.

Sallie would then share the news with Pam Sherratt, an Ohio State turfgrass specialist who works in the same office as Danneberger, along with professor Dave Gardner, Ph.D., and systems specialist Elaine Eberlin.

“Those first few days were terrible,” Sherratt says. “I was worried to death about Karl and also terrified that I had it. Sallie texted or called me each day with an update. The first couple of weeks were bad, and there was one day I thought he might die. It was like having a big rock in my chest just thinking about him on that ventilator and Sallie home alone.”

Sherratt, Gardner and Eberlin self-quarantined. Sherratt served as the first strand in a remarkable web of updates on Danneberger’s condition that included texts, emails and social media posts. Regular tweets from David Shetlar, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Ohio State Department of Entomology, had particular reach to the wider turfgrass community.

“My wife would stay up, talk to the doctors, then she’d call Pam, and Pam would disseminate the update through the department and other individuals, and Dave Shetlar would pick it up, and it weaved its way around,” Danneberger says. “It was amazing. I was talking with (architect) Jason Straka today, and he said, ‘Karl, do you have any idea how many prayer chains you were on?’”

Getting off the ventilator was just the start of Danneberger’s recovery. He would spend several more days in the ICU before eventually — after two consecutive swabs free of COVID-19 — being moved to the hospital’s rehab area.

“The people were just tremendous,” Danneberger says of the OSU hospital workers. “I remember waking up, and I was just sitting there, and all these people — doctors, administrators, nurses, guys who vacuum the floor — they all were just coming by and clapping and smiling. It was an amazing experience. I didn’t know what was going on, so I just gave them the thumbs-up. I do remember one of the doctors came in, and I said to him, ‘Geez, how did I get here? What’s going on?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve been to hell and back, and it’s good to have you back.’”

Danneberger had weakened significantly and struggled simply to stand. “I had to learn to walk and all that stuff over,” he says.

On April 16, he had recovered — and relearned — well enough that he was able to walk out of the hospital. He has been recovering at home since, and his doctor has cleared him to return to teaching by mid-May.

Danneberger, 65, estimates his physical health to be at 70%. Emotionally, he’s even better off.

“I said before that it’s kind of like I died and came back for my own eulogy,” he says. “I didn’t know so many people cared about me. I’m extremely humbled. It’s a weird thing to see, just the outpouring of emotion that I received and my family received. It has just been amazing. I ... I just don’t know what to say. The people contacting me, the cards and emails and texts and phone calls ... the outreach has been amazing. I feel fortunate to be a part of this industry.”

Danneberger still doesn’t know how he contracted coronavirus, nor can he explain how those closest to him did not.

“I hadn’t been out of the country,” he says. “I really don’t know. Did I catch it from a student in class? The way it moves, I could have gotten it from standing next to somebody. How’d I get it so early? It’s a serious thing. Why does it hit some people and not others? My wife is fine.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine first issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, just as Danneberger was at his most vulnerable. Danneberger says he didn’t know much about the novel coronavirus before he fell ill.

“I took it serious, but I didn’t even get a chance to social distance,” he says. “When I was in the hospital, I missed two weeks of my life. I could see when I asked the doctors about it, about what was going on — you could see how it was evolving over time. They started with not knowing a lot to learning a heck of a lot every day.”

Danneberger says he’s content to serve as a face for survivors of the virus. He hopes others learn from his experience.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Uh, you know what? I didn’t take it real serious. But when you got it, I was, like, “Hey, maybe we should take this a little more serious.”’ If that’s the case,” Danneberger says, “that’s a good sign.”

Sherratt takes it as such. She says that in her immediate circle, Danneberger’s experience has resonated.

“I had a few friends who were blasé about the virus, and I believe those of us close to Karl have had a totally different experience,” Sherratt says. “We know how bad this is, how much we must listen to and respect the decisions made by Gov. DeWine and Dr. (Amy) Acton (director of the Ohio Department of Health). While some may have spent those early weeks feeling good, I had a couple of days where I could barely get off my couch. If you know me, I’m an upbeat, happy person, but boy, I went down a dark hole a couple of times. Thankfully, I’m much more positive now.”

Danneberger is of the same mind.

“I’m very fortunate,” he says. “Make no mistake about it. I consider myself extremely fortunate. I do know I owe my life to the Ohio State hospital and the doctors and front-line workers and all the support of my friends and family.”

Danneberger says he has noticed a few lingering health issues, such as a pinched nerve and weakness in his right hand. “A few things related to trauma,” he says. “And low oxygen. But I’m confident they’ll work out over time. My doctor said, ‘If that’s it, Karl, you came out of it extremely well.’”

There has been one unusual side effect, which Danneberger offers with a chuckle.

“I don’t know if it really changed me,” he says. “My wife just said, ‘We were hoping it would.’ I don’t know I came out of it with any profound thing. Hope is the big thing — being an optimist. And there is one thing: I used to never eat breakfast. I’d maybe make a cup of coffee and eat a small yogurt, then I was off to work. Now I sit down to breakfast, and I’ll have that cereal, maybe an English muffin, a cup of juice. Are there any Pop-Tarts around? I guess now I’m a breakfast guy. It’s a small thing.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.