‘It changes your outlook’

How Novant Health team members saved a small business owner

Allan Cheatham believes in taking care of people and giving back to the community where he lives and owns a business. As the owner of Shallotte Cleaners and Southport Cleaners, he has always offered complimentary cleaning services for veteran uniforms and flags because he understands just how much dry cleaning and restoration can mean to someone.

He shared the story about a World War II veteran who came into his store and dropped off his old military uniform for cleaning. As always, Cheatham went through the pockets to collect any forgotten items he’d then return with the freshly cleaned garments. On this occasion, however, he discovered something unusual.

Inside the pockets and creases, he found handfuls of sand and debris, as well as a pair of tiny salt and pepper shakers. He immediately called the veteran. As Cheatham soon learned, this debris was not just a pile a dirt. It was black sand from the beaches of Iwo Jima. The sand had made its way into his pockets during battle as enemy fire threw sand in every direction. He made it past the beach, and the shakers were from his return trip home.

“He said, ‘I should have cleaned all that out,’ Cheatham recalled. “I said, ‘No, I’m glad you didn’t because I wouldn’t have heard this story, and I wouldn’t have this moment.’ It was very surreal that all this time had passed and the sand remained.” Cheatham collected the sand in a bag, carefully cleaned the uniform and returned it with the once forgotten items.

In his four decades in the dry cleaning industry, he has helped countless others in the community salvage and care for other important clothing. Recently, Novant Health team members had a chance to return the favor.

This fall, Cheatham contracted COVID-19. He remembers the moment he started feeling off. He had a tickle in his throat, and it wouldn’t go away. Within a few days, he had tested positive along with his wife and their daughter. Cheatham quarantined at home while his employees stepped up to lead the business while he recovered. Then, he started developing severe symptoms.

“I didn’t get a fever until days after I started to feel bad,” Cheatham said. “It was low grade. It went away by the next day. Then it came back a couple days later. It moved from 99 up to 100 degrees, and it stayed with me and kept climbing to 102.”

Cheatham knew he had a tendency to develop bronchitis, so he went to the ER at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, where doctors found he had pneumonia. They admitted Cheatham right away.

“They started me on an IV with two different antibiotics,” Cheatham said. “By the next morning, I felt like a new person.”

Cheatham’s condition quickly improved, too. Within three days, his fever broke and he was well enough to go home. As a small business owner, Cheatham is attuned to watching for good customer service. He described his stay at Brunswick Medical Center as a “Chick-fil-A experience.” 

“This was the first time I’d been in the hospital since I was 10 years old, and I can’t say enough about Novant Health,” Cheatham said.

While Cheatham’s wife, Cindy, is a Novant Health team member, Cheatham said no one was aware of that fact.

“The people in clinical care don’t know who my wife is, and I was treated without them knowing she was an employee there,” Cheatham said. “And I just can’t say enough about the care and compassion they gave me.”

Today, Cheatham is back to work. He continues to wear a mask to protect himself, his co-workers and customers, and he has started to recover his sense of taste and smell.

“Yesterday, for the first time, I was able to drink black coffee, and it was pleasant to me,” Cheatham shared. “It doesn’t taste exactly the same, but it’s not as bitter and bad as it had been. So, I know those cells are starting to regrow.”

He encourages others to seek medical attention if they have symptoms associated with COVID-19 since people experience it in different ways.

“If you have a scratchy throat or some congestion, go get tested,” Cheatham said. “Don’t wait until two to three days later when you start running a fever. Our daughter never ran a fever and she had it. She had been sick four or five days before she lost her sense of taste and smell.”

In the meantime, Cheatham wants to do everything he can to help. To that end, he plans to donate plasma so his antibodies can help others recover.

“If I can help save somebody’s life, I will do everything I can to make that happen,” Cheatham said. “An experience like this changes your outlook.” 

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