Viral Voyage: A Midstream Revival

Photo Graphic by Ysabel de la Rosa

The woman looked to be 5 feet 3 inches tall. Olive skin covered her bones. There was scant flesh on her frame. Her short, wiry grey hair might have been a cheap wig. Her bangs hid her eyebrows. Her blue eyes were dull, set close together and far back in her head. I saw iron determination in her gaze. I knew she was speaking to me, even as she seemed to look through me, past me. Her voice was gravelly, low-volume, but loaded with the same determination I saw in her eyes. She wore camouflage pants and a red and black plaid vest sat over a long sleeved, denim shirt. She wore a hat, but I can’t recall a single feature of it, just that she wore a hat. “We’re going to move you soon,” she said. “We have to get you away from that hospital.”

I’ve never known such fear. She leaned over me. Was I sitting or lying down? I don’t remember. She told me I had been kidnapped and soon we would move to another camp, farther away and harder to find than the one we were in. I looked around. I saw the quintessential camp setting of a white militia group from “Walker Texas Ranger,” or “FBI’s Most Wanted.” I didn’t see another person, though. Where were they? Were we waiting for them? I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t ask questions. I couldn’t tell lies that might get me out of the situation. How would anyone ever find me? Did this woman and her “others” intend to keep me alive?

I then saw her standing behind a glass door. Maybe I wasn’t in the camp. Maybe they had moved me somewhere to get help. I struggled to reach a small pencil on the table by the side of my bed. There was a pad of paper next to it. I wasn’t strong enough to sit up, but I stretched out my arm and scribbled: “Please help me. I’ve been kidnapped. I have Covid-19, and I need to get back to United Hospital.”

I saw a woman in a green uniform a few feet away behind a tall countertop. I waved my arm to get her attention. She came to my side. I handed her my note. Indeed, someone did want to keep me alive.

“I can talk to you now that you are conscious,” she said. “You haven’t been kidnapped. You are at the hospital. You’re experiencing something that happens sometimes after you’ve been given a lot of Fentanyl.”

“Why Fentanyl?” I wrote.

“You were going down fast. Your body kept losing oxygen, even after you were intubated. Your temperature went to 106. All we could do was put you into a medically induced coma and hope for the best.”

I vaguely remembered the intubation. Large, hard, green plastic tubes go through your throat and windpipe. These are attached to a ventilator. I remember receiving six liters of oxygen per minute. The tubes felt enormous in my throat, and rock hard.

Even with all that oxygen pouring straight into my lungs, it was almost impossible to force one breath in. I could feel the breath go from my nose to a particular spot in my left lung. I felt I was doing some strange internal bench press. I would mentally aim for that one space I could feel. As it became harder to do, with each slow breath, I would mentally say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” My emergency prayer, the one I say when I’m out of my mind, and everything is out of my hands.

Lying on the stomach helps open the lungs and increase the oxygen flow. I vaguely remember going from that position to waking up with auto parts in my throat. I remember the tubes, their hardness, the fight to get that one breath to go into my body. I reached a point where I honestly thought I would not be able to draw in one more breath. There are times when people told me I have come close to dying. This didn’t feel like those times. This felt harder, darker, hopeless. Last thoughts: “The house is a mess. Why is everything dark? What about those stories where dying people see a tunnel of light?” Only darkness. Lord Jesus. I must push that breath through. Have mercy on me. And the darkness, with its silence, enveloped me.

One of the nurses called my brother and told him to not give up hope, but also to be prepared for my death.

I don’t know how many days I was in a coma. I don’t want to know. I’ve been told it was 21. I’ve been told it was 30. Each person would have reason to be correct, but I’d just as soon not know the number.

After explaining how Fentanyl is one of the best drugs to help a patient stay in a coma, the nurse told me that if I wanted to survive, I’d have to have a tracheotomy and go on a different ventilator. “Then what?” I scribbled. “What happens when I go home?”

“You won’t go home until you’re ready. We make sure of that.”

Scribbling: “I won’t have to live with a hole in my neck?”

After weeks in the hospital, someone finally explained the process to me. A surgeon would cut my throat and windpipe. A ventilator, connected to an oxygen supply would go into my windpipe. A plastic piece in my trachea would serve as the airway. The ventilator would send the oxygen though there into my air-starved lungs. Without being able to predict timing, she could describe the ultimate outcome. At the right stages of healing: the ventilator comes out; the plastic tube in the trachea comes out; the hole in the neck heals. Yes, I would be able to speak again. And, the hard green tubes would come out before the tracheotomy.

My last note to the nurse that day: “Please schedule the surgery.”

“I’ll do that now,” she said and walked back to her station, while I thanked God I had a different face to remember beside that of my kidnapper. Although her steely face was nearly expressionless, looked almost non-sentient, I can recall it with great detail to this day, almost a year later. I can still see her standing at the glass door to the room I was in, watching me. If I’m not careful, I can also still feel the fear. Visceral. Thick. Paralyzing. I could barely think my way through it. I still have the note I wrote to the nurse. It’s barely legible. I’d been writing notes to nurses for weeks, most of them on a legal pad my brother had left with me. When I look at those notes now, I’m amazed that the staff understood me. It’s a terrifying thing suddenly to not be able to talk, to not even make a sound. It is tantamount to an amputation of some part of the soul. Yes, Christian scripture tells us the eye is the lamp of the body (Matthew 6:22), a sentence which we often misquote as “the eye is the light of the soul.” Our voice does much more for us than simply talk. It represents us. It speaks for our mind, heart, soul. It asks for help, cries out in an emergency, seeks to prevent harm, or death.

Covid-19 came to me in the guise of a stomach virus that dragged on for two weeks.

Neither my doctor nor I connected the symptoms with Covid-19. They fit “stomach bug” perfectly until the diarrhea turned black and endless, looking like squid ink in the toilet bowl. One day, suddenly, my lungs felt as though something had driven into them, slamming them, and I could feel them shutting down.

A nurse practitioner in PPE gear came to my house, did the test, and then came the news. Despite having taken every precaution possible, I had Covid-19. My doctor ordered oxygen and prednisone. For two days, I thought I could win. Then, within an hour, my oxygen level plunged from 90 to 72. It happened in the middle of the night. By noon, when the home health nurse came, I could barely stand. She called the ambulance to take me to the hospital. My viral voyage had begun.

After much thought, I’ve decided to write about that voyage. Almost every facet of Covid-19 affected me and continues to now, almost a year after being hospitalized. Many media have striven to report this monster. I applaud their efforts. That being said, I have yet to read, hear or otherwise consume a news report, study or anecdote that offers a full range of Covid-19 details. I think only telling a story, over time and in installments, can do it justice. I also think it’s a good way to be helpful.

I don’t tell mine without reservations. I fear what I may feel in telling it, what memories will grab me. I’m convinced, however, that Covid-19 and the Corona family are far from done with us. I’ve heard numerous reporters and others say, “Now that it’s over …”

It’s not over. It is, simply, distant from some and closer, too close, to others. Remember, distant is how it all began.

Just last week, two people I know who decided not to get a vaccine were buried and are being mourned by their families. In its wake, Covid-19 has left thousands of people whose lives and health are forever changed. Like most people with auto-immune or chronic illness, they won’t appear in headlines. There is a great deal of quiet suffering going on. Covid “long haulers” will need help medicine hasn’t discovered yet.

My intention is to share my “viral voyage” in a way that portrays the experience from the inside out: the virus, its treatment, its aftermath, and a recovery — as far as I can take it. Often, each post will end with advice on coping with aspects of Covid-19 and recovering from a coma. I had seen comas only on television. How little I knew. The therapy, the weakness, the disorientation, the condition called ICU PTSD, the hair loss….comas have saved many of the seriously ill, but comas leave their mark. If you’ve been in one or are taking care of someone who was in one, even if it was as much as a year ago, there’s much to know.

Those are some of my hopes for Viral Voyage. My fear is that remembering may be more than I can handle. I’ll know only by trying. You’re invited to travel with me on this journey for as long as we can, together.

The Bit of Advice

Not new, but still important: Consider getting vaccinated if you haven’t. Based on all the sources I have access to, including first-hand medical ones, I personally would take only Pfizer or Moderna. If you have been hospitalized with Covid-19 and had a serious case, in some countries, it’s recommended that you wait 14 weeks after the hospital stay to get a vaccine. If possible, obtain an antibodies blood test prior to the vaccine. In my case, the test could not tell me how many antibodies I had, but it could confirm that I had them.

Full disclosure: I have preexisting conditions that complicate everything. I had some difficulty with the vaccine. I do understand some people’s hesitancy. The numbers are speaking, though.Unless you have a preexisting condition that could be made life-threatening, or have a history of serious reactions to other vaccines, 1) Get the vaccine. It is not a cure, but a good road block to keep you from riding the road to death or disability. 2) Never hesitate to wear a mask. The life you save ….

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Poet, nonfiction writer, designer, translator, editor. Culture vulture. Survivor of medical mysteries. Dedicated to the arts of healing and understanding.

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Ysabel de la Rosa

Ysabel de la Rosa

Poet, nonfiction writer, designer, translator, editor. Culture vulture. Survivor of medical mysteries. Dedicated to the arts of healing and understanding.

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