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A COVID-19 Story: Appreciating the Value of a Breath

Like so many, Michael took breathing for granted. Every minute, of every day, he would take a breath, and never gave this reflexive activity a moment’s thought. He just breathed. Until he couldn’t.

The Initial Signs and Symptoms

Mike and his wife Lori lived in Connecticut, enjoying the quiet and serenity of suburban life. They were close to their grown children, Brian and Jessica (Jess), both of whom lived out of state. Their lives were completely turned upside down on November 11, 2020, when they started having symptoms of COVID-19.

Mike developed a cough and fever and was so tired he could barely get out of bed. Shortly thereafter, Lori came down with similar symptoms.

“I thought we would have it for a few days,” Lori explains. “It was really our kids who put a fire under us and helped us understand just how sick we were.”

A Troubling Turn of Events

Mike and Lori were taken to the hospital together in an ambulance. They were placed in separate rooms in the ER and monitored for several hours. With oxygen saturation levels in the 80s, both were admitted to the hospital, diagnosed with COVID-19.

After 6 days Lori had recovered enough to go home. “I was feeling better than Michael, but I was worried,” Lori adds. “Michael didn’t want to be intubated, and I didn’t want him to be alone.” Jess came up from New York City to look after her mother.

“They had to intubate him on Thanksgiving; that was a bad day,” Lori recalls. “We found out about all the bad things that can happen when a person is on a ventilator, including blood pressure concerns, infections, airway blockages and even hallucinations.”

Mike doesn’t remember much from this time, as he was under constant sedation. The future, as Lori remembers, looked grim.

“We literally were planning his funeral. We didn’t want to but we started thinking through those plans.”

A Glimmer of Hope

As Mike laid in the ICU, his son Brian searched desperately for information that might help. Almost by accident, he came upon a story about a doctor in Miami who had gone from critical to recovered with COVID-19 in a mere matter of days – all thanks to a medicine doctors are currently testing in some of the sickest of COVID-19 patients. It was exactly the glimmer of hope that the family had been searching for, and they began working to do everything possible to get the same medicine for Mike.

“We were very concerned because every day Michael was on a ventilator would translate to increased damage to his body,” Lori recalls. “We were willing to do anything to help him recover.”

Shortly before Christmas, the doctors agreed to administer the investigational medicine. A few days after the second course, Mike’s ventilator settings improved dramatically, and they began to wean him off the sedatives and pain killers. At this point he had laid unconscious for nearly two months. His mind was foggy, and his strength was nearly non-existent.

Lori visited as much as she could given the COVID restrictions, reminding Mike: “You were weak and couldn’t keep your head up. You just started to text me. At first it was gibberish, but then it got clearer. We were worried about your mental state, so we wanted to make sure you knew who you were.”

“I remember all the tests and work I had to get through to make it out of the hospital. They kept testing me, asking me to count backwards, ensuring I knew the date and year – all, in order to confirm I was ready to be discharged.” Thankfully, he eventually was.

The Road to Recovery

On January 21, 2021, Mike finally left the hospital and was admitted to a rehabilitation facility. It was there that he began to restart his everyday routine, from independently brushing his teeth to walking and getting in and out of a car. He was able to get the tracheostomy tube removed and begin eating food again.

Later, on March 5, 2021, nearly four months after his COVID-19 diagnosis, the staff at the rehabilitation hospital lined the hallways to send him home. It was an incredible moment the family will never forget.

When Mike thinks back to his time in the hospital, he’s often reminded of both the moments of pain and the moments of joy. “I remember having to be woken up in the hospital every couple of hours so nurses could check on me. I also remember the hundreds of emails, cards and notes of well-wishes I received from people, some of whom I hadn’t heard from since high school. But above all, I remember how my family stuck by me every step of the way.”

Today, Mike continues to recover at home with Lori’s care and encouragement, but life still feels inconsistent. Some days, he can walk a good distance, some days, he can’t. He’s driving again, and he can shower and clean up on his own, but sometimes it’s hard not to be frustrated.

Mike thinks a lot about his experience with COVID-19, which has left him and so many others with a renewed appreciation for life’s simplest activities. As he looks to the future, never, ever, again will he take for granted the value of a breath.