KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A former University of Tennessee baseball player always knew he wanted to help others. After college, he became a nurse.
He said he felt called to help even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, but his good deed quickly turned into a fight for his life.
"I always thought if I caught it, I'd be one of the people that'd never know," said Travis Exum. It's been a month since he tested positive for COVID-19.
In December, Exum went to Texas as a traveling nurse and starting working more than 75 hours some weeks, but soon realized something was wrong.
"I come home one night after I've been there a few weeks and I pop a temperature," he said.
He tested positive and his health began declining. Immediately he knew he wanted to be home in Knoxville. So Exum's wife, Shannon, flew to Texas and drove 18 hours to bring him home.
"To think she went that far with me sick, windows down and cold for 18 hours getting home," he said. "She's my hero."
His wife said that she didn't think twice about making the journey for him and that she did it just because she knew she had to.
"I say that angels floated me," Shannon said. "I know it sounds silly but I sang the whole time and tried to power through."
After being reunited with his wife, he spent nine days in the hospital fighting for his life.
"Every waking moment I was just thinking about my next breath," said Exum. "And that was the first time in my life I was scared for my life."
He was scared and alone. At one point, he told his wife that he just wanted a hug from somebody.
Doctors expect months of recovery are ahead. He's still on continuous oxygen to help his breathing. On Friday, he had his first physical therapy session. The aftermath hit him so hard, he's having to relearn how to walk.
"Being someone that's a fisherman, a runner, a nurse and an active person ... baby steps are hard for me," he said.
But he says he'd do it all again. He said he would still travel all that way for a chance to help others because that's what he's meant to do.
"If I was well, I'd leave right now or find somewhere here in Knoxville, I would do it again tomorrow," he said.
He credits his family and the volunteer spirit for pushing him along and giving him the will to save other people's lives even if it put his own in danger.
"Reminds me what it means to be a Tennessee Volunteer. It means we take care of each other," said Exum. "I'm thankful to be alive, so thankful to be home with my family."
Exum and his wife started a fundraiser to help support their family and medical bills while he is out of work.