Wynter Ho lives to tell about her long journey back from COVID-19

Apr 14, 2023

Two large, framed photographs of Marilyn Monroe hang in the back of Wynter Ho’s beauty salon in Huntington Beach.

The images illustrate how important it is to Ho that her clients feel glamorous. She’s starting to feel the same way again.

Ho was hospitalized at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and briefly UC Irvine for more than six months, from July 2021 to January 2022, due to COVID-19. At the time, she was not vaccinated.

It’s been more than a year since her release, yet challenges have still presented themselves. She was wheelchair-bound for about four months, then she used a walker, then crutches. In January, she had surgery after suffering inflammation around her eyes, she said likely from long COVID.

But as of last week, she finished her final physical therapy session at St. Joseph Hospital rehabilitation center in Orange.

“I feel like that was a movie that I went through or something,” said Ho, 28, who lives in Garden Grove. “I definitely have a different outlook on life now. I’m just so grateful now. Sometimes, I’m even stunned at how much I’ve improved and how much progress we’ve made. From little things like not eating to not talking to now being able to have full conversations. Even just standing for a long time, I’m like, ‘I’m really standing, and I’m talking too.’”

She’s able to walk without restrictions now, and she said she’s pain-free. The only physical reminder of her stay at Fountain Valley is a closed hole in her throat area, where a tracheostomy tube once sat as Ho was hooked to a ventilator for months. She’ll sometimes cover it with a bandage.

Ho’s lash extension and nail salon, “Wink by Wynter,” remains open for business. Her mother Katie Trinh and aunt helped keep it running while she was in the hospital.

Wynter Ho hugs Karly Kodzis, an intensive care nurse, at her shop “Wink By Wynter” on Thursday in Huntington Beach.

It doubles as a sort of therapy studio. Ho is not afraid to share her story. For much of her hospital stay, she had four chest tubes stuck in her 5-foot-2 frame. At one point, doctors thought she might have a heart attack because her lungs had collapsed, and a lung transplant was also considered.

“It’s just nice to share my story,” she said. “I’m talking to people a lot throughout the day, which is really nice. I feel like it shows a vulnerability a little bit. In the beauty industry, it’s all professionalism most of the time, but I think people getting to know my story is awesome … A lot of my clients are closer to me now, in a way.”

She also remains friends with some of the people who have helped her get back up and running. Last Halloween she held a party at her salon, and staff from Fountain Valley Regional Hospital were invited.

Wynter Ho, left, recounts her story about surviving COVID-19, while Karly Kodzis, center, and Vivian Nguyen, both intensive care nurses who worked on Ho, listen in at her shop “Wink By Wynter” on Thursday.

“It’s fun for me to stay in touch with her,” said Karly Kodzis, one of her nurses in the intensive care unit. “I mean, there were points where we did not think she was going to even live. To now see her go to Disneyland, go back to work, walk to all these things, that’s why we’re in the business we’re in. A lot of times we don’t get to see those outcomes … but Wynter is special.

“She had a really special place in our heart. At that time, when she was there, it was a really dark time for us as staff. We were just overwhelmed by the amount of death from COVID patients.”

At one point, Ho was in a pod of people battling the virus. After she awoke from her coma, she was told she was the only one from the pod who had survived.

Her family took shifts visiting her at the hospital, and she would often FaceTime with them. Ho also has an 8-year-old sister, Skyler, whose elementary school class wrote letters to Wynter in the hospital.

“The amount of control she had to calm herself after her hospital stay was longer, most adults don’t have that kind of control,” said Vivian Nguyen, another of Ho’s ICU nurses. “I was just honest with her, because I didn’t want her to think this was going to be some quick recovery process. This was going to take time. It was one holiday season in the hospital, but you have to keep going. There were times when she was like, ‘Can I have more medication?’ And it was just like, no, you have to feel your feelings.”

Feelings can change, and Ho now feels grateful for each and every day. One of her first tasks upon being released from the hospital was getting vaccinated. Two weeks later, she went to Disneyland with family, riding around on a little cart.

“I got a lot of stares,” she said. “My knees had been so bedridden that the bone died off, and bone grew outside my kneecaps. It limited my ability to bend. I had a board to slide in and out of chairs, to go into the car.”

It’s been a long road, but Ho feels like she’s back in a good place. Her family bond remains closer than ever, as she now lives with her grandparents and mom. She’s able to hang out with friends and live her life.

“I’m just grateful looking back, like wow, we really made it,” she said. “It wasn’t just me, it was a whole team of us that really pushed to see me go home and do more with my life. I feel like I have a second chance. I feel more alive than ever.”

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