What’s it’s like having a bad case of COVID-19
By Dawne Belloise
Rob Carney acknowledges that he’s lucky to be alive, having beat the odds of overcoming COVID-19 that ravaged his body, especially his lungs. His doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction were not optimistic about his chances of survival during his prolonged two and a half weeks on a ventilator in an induced coma. During this time, Rob was tested and found to have not just COVID-19, but two other virus types, as well as type 2 diabetes, complicating his treatment and recovery. Rob was one of the very fortunate ones.
His symptoms began on March 26. “I spent five days at my house with extreme aches and headaches. I couldn’t eat and food tasted like sulphur,” he recalls. “I was living on chicken noodle soup that kind neighbors brought me every day. I didn’t have the temperature, because I was taking Tylenol, so when I called the medical community they just told me to sit tight and wait it out. This virus is so new and some people just don’t present in the same way, like temperatures. By the fifth day, I had resigned myself to the thought that I was going to die.”
He took an ambulance to the Gunnison Valley Hospital, where his temperature registered at 103. He was immediately put into isolation and intubated. Two days later, as his condition worsened, he was on a flight for life to Grand Junction.
“All I know is that 10 days later I woke up in the ICU at St. Mary’s. I had gone into respiratory failure at some point. I woke up in a delirium and felt like a truck had run over me.” He improved enough to be moved into recovery, after two and a half weeks of touch and go, where the medical staff also tried various experimental treatments and medications. He was moved to the isolation ward three days later. “Basically, I had to test negative twice and I also had a viral pneumonia.”
Eventually out of isolation, he remained for six days more before being relocated to the acute rehabilitation ward, the final step before being discharged. “I had four different therapists—physical, speech, occupational therapy [to ensure he could shower, cook and live on his own] and recreational, “because I couldn’t walk. I needed exercise to strengthen my body,” Carney says.
“I can walk maybe 100 feet now before becoming fatigued. I have a four-wheel walker.” He smiles and adds, “I feel an improvement every day.”
When Rob’s tubes were removed, he could barely talk and he had a bad stutter. “My voice wasn’t getting louder and it was hoarse. No one could understand me. The doctors were concerned about the hard time I was having swallowing and I couldn’t keep food down, having had a feeding tube for 10 days. They were concerned that my vocal cords had been damaged.” But an endoscopy showed that his cords and throat weren’t damaged or paralyzed and just needed time to heal. He was given swallowing exercises and taught how to chew very tiny bites of food at a time. “It takes me about an hour and a half to eat a meal now. I have to eat very slowly.”
Rob shares that his mind is a bit of a blur. “The virus did a number on my head. I forget things, I can’t recall words that I know. I have memory loss and I get extremely overwhelmed easily. They say it’s pretty normal for COVID-19—it attacks the brain and also goes after your olfactory sense. But it’s affected everything. It’ll all come back though and they’re working on that now with me. It overloads the brain—they call it brain fatigue.”
Rob came away with some heartwarming experiences, though. “One of the most wonderful things is that all the nurses who had been taking care of me while I was in coma and sat with me night after night, day and night, they came and introduced themselves once I was conscious. There were nine nurses who came to say hi and introduce themselves. They told me how lucky I was. They were so sweet and kind, they were angels,” he says emotionally. “The doctor is a miracle worker and puts himself in jeopardy every single day to save people like me.”
Out of rehab, all Rob wanted to do was return home. However, doctors and friends who were still struggling with the after-effects of the virus warned him against it. “Several people reached out who had moderate symptoms and those people are still having a hard time breathing and had to leave Crested Butte just to be able to breathe. My lungs are extremely weak so I made the decision to stay with a friend in Denver who will help me with all my meds, driving me to rehab and doing my exercising for the entire month of May,” he says. He hopes to return home in early June.
The entire experience has left Rob with a renewed life outlook. “It has changed my entire perspective of life. I’ve been given a new lease on life and I need to make some changes, like my eating habits, especially now that I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, which, for the most part, can be controlled with diet. I lost 35 pounds while in ICU. I have to work on my lifestyle. I’m no longer going to drink alcohol or smoke pot. I don’t want a setback, and I’ll be exercising as much as I possibly can. They don’t want me to go back to work and I can’t drive.”
Fortunately, no one else at Rob’s grow operation, Riverland Remedies, aka Riverland Flower Company, got sick because, he feels, they were proactive in using masks, gloves and sanitation and also used a product that kills viruses, bacteria, mold and mildew instantly.
Rob was released from the hospital on April 22, 28 days after his symptoms began. He emphasises that he feels strongly that people should continue to stay at home, wear masks and stay six feet feet apart.
“I understand that a lot of people are struggling right now and it doesn’t seem fair, but I just feel that if people go back to work, if people start coming into town, I really believe that there’s going to be a second wave that will hit us bigger and harder than the first time and it will overwhelm our rural hospital that doesn’t have the respirators to take care of all those people. As bad as not being able to open restaurants and bars is, it’s the right thing thing to do. It’s true, we’re a free country, but I don’t want any more people to get sick. We shouldn’t have lost Mikey, Yank or Bob, but we did. How many more people have to die before we get it? I was one of the lucky ones.”