10 Lessons Learned by a COVID Survivor

I am the President of Atlas IPS.  Sometime between July 31 and August 9 I should have died.

The Background

When the COVID pandemic started in March, my family were considered the “nuts.”  We immediately wore masks, used hand sanitizer, went grocery shopping every 2 – 3 weeks, and didn’t get take-out food for over three months.  We did this to protect my wife who has had pneumonia twice and a thyroid condition that impacts her immune system.

I am 57 years old.  I have no preexisting conditions and do not take any prescriptions.  I don’t smoke.  I run 3 miles and swim laps 5 – 6 days a week. 

Our belief was that if either my extremely healthy 22-year-old son or I became infected, we might get a fever for 3 days.  If my wife was infected, all bets were off.

On July 22 I began to exhibit mild COVID symptoms. On July 24 the three of us went to the Florida Department of Health and were tested for COVID with a throat swab.  Because we were unsure about the accuracy of a throat swab, on July 27th we went to an urgent care facility and were tested with a nasal swab.

My symptoms continued to worsen including having a 102o fever and developing a mild cough.  Fortunately, my wife bought a pulse oximeter and found my oxygen level at 88%, when it should be at 95% or higher.  She called the hospital with that information and the nurse said I needed to get to the emergency room immediately.

On July 28 I was admitted to a nearby large top-rated hospital.  My X-rays showed one of my lungs was completed infected and the other was 1/3rd infected with pneumonia.  My breathing continued to worsen and on July 31 I was moved to the ICU and placed on a ventilator for 10 days.  Miraculously I was moved out of the ICU on August 17, and on August 21 I was discharged to my home.

We were told in confidence by one of my nurses that I was the only patient to survive with COVID, who was also admitted to the ICU and placed on a ventilator, since March.  Whether or not that statement is 100% accurate, it seems not many people survive, and the ability for my family and me to tell our story is unique.

10 Lessons Learned

  1. The risk of getting COVID is real and can hit anyone. In the eyes of my family and friends, I was the picture of health and no one expected COVID to infect me, and more important almost kill me.  Since I got sick, we have heard of a college freshman who got COVID and now needs dialysis, and two mothers who went to the hospital for C-sections, contracted COVID, and are now in the ICU.  Young or old, healthy or not, COVID does not discriminate who it hits.
  2. The testing process is broken. Ten days after our Florida Department of Health swab, my wife was called to inform her that she had been exposed to someone positive with COVID.  She responded, “No kidding, my husband is in the hospital on a vent.”  A day later the urgent care facility called and said all three of us tested negative for COVID.
  3. If you get symptoms, get medical attention early. We listened to current CDC guidance, stayed home, and treated my symptoms.   We believe if we had waited much longer to contact the hospital, I would have died.  If we had contacted the hospital sooner, there is a chance I could have avoided being placed on a ventilator.  In short, don’t wait too long to seek medical care.
  4. Hospitals do not know how to consistently and effectively treat COVID. The average US survival rate for COVID patients who are vented is 25%.  We were told by medical staff that my hospital and another large one in the area struggle to produce any survivors.  We were also told by another source that a Northwestern (Chicago area) hospital has an 86% survival rate.  It does not appear to us that hospitals are sharing best practices, and the top ratings we initially saw for my hospital is for conditions other than COVID.
  5. You must have a medical advocate. Given that hospital care is not consistent, it is imperative that a patient have a fully engaged and assertive friend or family member who is their medical advocate.  My wife kept detailed notes of every discussion, my vitals, my medications, and reached out to different medical friends and family to make sure what was being recommended by the doctors made sense.  She was not afraid to push for different solutions and to say no.  Do not simply assume what a doctor recommends is right.
  6. Don’t assume a vented patient is unconscious. Although I was placed in a medical coma through the use of Fentanyl (at the maximum level allowed, which should level a horse), my mind and senses were conscious, causing the most frightening time of my life.  I did not know I was in the hospital for COVID, and instead thought my organs were being harvested and the people around me were trying to kill me.  I believed this for almost 2 weeks.  If one nurse or doctor had taken the time to talk to me like I was awake and reassure me I was safe and being cared for, it would have made a huge difference on my mental outlook and will to live.  We believe this becomes even more important because COVID patients are isolated from their families, leaving them confused and scared.
  7. COVID is the gift that keeps on giving. COVID often doesn’t end after the fever and cough are gone.  I discussed the freshman who is now on dialysis, but other post-COVID conditions that medical staff discussed with us include blood clots, strokes, heart issues, organ failures, and even amputations.  To date I have been lucky to have not been given any additional COVID “gifts,” but my story is far from over.  I lost 30 pounds.  The day I came out of the ICU I barely had enough energy to brush my teeth.  It was quickly clear that simply sitting up was going to be a challenge and I needed to learn how to walk again.
  8. You need to be as healthy as possible to fight COVID. If what we were told about my hospital’s survival rate is even remotely accurate, I must ask myself, “Why did I survive?”  As I said above, having a medical advocate is a factor.  We also believe the many prayers, thoughts, and human concern shown for me and my family helped save my life (more on this below).  However, we also believe my general health was a major factor and should be something everyone considers.
  9. We need to be concerned about our COVID healthcare workers. We call them heroes, and they are.  Every day they risk self-exposure and taking the virus back to their families.  However, what we fail to understand is the mental and emotional damage being done to these wonderful people because they are constantly surrounded by death.  One nurse talked about a PTSD-like impact, and I believe the risk is real.
  10. We should have more faith in the human race. In a time where hate and anger seem to be the norm, I have often wondered when it became more important to be right than respecting and simply caring for another human being.  From day 1 of my sickness, my wife and children exposed our journey “naked and afraid” through Facebook and other social media channels to all that would listen, with the simple goal of providing awareness of the risk.  The response was overwhelming from friends, family, communities, but most surprising was the support provided from countless people we did not know.  My family got messages from all over the world simply providing prayers, thoughts, well wishes, and asking how I was doing that day.  We believe that deep down, most people still want to care for each other, which gives my family and I hope for the future.

After looking this over with my wife (the love of my life, my warrior and soulmate) she asked that I add a note describing the mental and emotional toll physical isolation takes on the family—waiting anxiously for medical update calls that come late or not at all; not being able to sit next to your loved one to protect them, hold their hand, tell them they are safe, and let them know you love them; and wondering if the last words you said to them will be the last words you get to say.

The goal of this message is not to get into a debate about politics, reporting, masks, personal freedoms, or fall into any of those rabbit holes.  Our goal is to help provide a personal, open, and honest perspective about the risks of this horrific virus.  What you do from here is your choice.

If you want to see the full and detailed story on Facebook, please look at my wife’s page at Gayle Hanyzewski Landsman.  (If you are a Dave Mathews music fan, I would recommend it since there is a nice surprise within.)

Please stay vigilant and safe.