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COVID-19 Survivor: "I Was Ready To Die"

David William Turner
Photo provided
David William Turner

I recently learned that a friend of mine was hospitalized for COVID-19.

I’ve known Dave Turner for about a decade. He lives in Brooklyn and works on film sets. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, and surfs. He’s 34. So I found it shocking to learn that he was recently released from the ICU in Virginia. I reached out to him and we set up a phone call, which we recorded.

“Hey bud, how ya doin’?”
“How’s it going man?”

Before displaying symptoms of the coronavirus in March, Dave was isolating with his girlfriend. He thinks he might have gotten it at the grocery store, but he really doesn’t know where he contracted it. He first started feeling something wasn’t right on March 19th, less than three weeks after the first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 was recorded in New York.

“So basically on the 19th, I didn’t really get a great night sleep. I was…I like woke up in sweats like multiple times. But New York was still on and off being hot and cold…and you know these buildings they like overcrank the radiator at night…so it was unclear. I didn’t actually feel sick. I just got bad sleep and woke up completely sweating. But I kinda think that was the first symptoms because then the next day, on the 20th, I was feeling a little weird during the day and I thought it because I was tired from the night before. But then by the night time, like right when we went to have dinner…I basically just knew right there that I was sick.”

At first, it was headaches.

“But then a couple days later, that’s when the extreme nausea started. And I know that’s not a symptom that everybody who’s been getting has got but it really, severely attacked my digestive system.”

From March 20th to the 25th, Dave’s headaches and nausea got worse. He couldn’t sleep. His fever climbed to 103 degrees.

“So I was feeling this tightness in my chest which was manageable during the day. But at night, once it got late, like 10 p.m., I knew, like the second 10 p.m. hit, it was going to get worse.”

Dave and his girlfriend first started contacting doctors over telemedicine.  But it was confusing.

“It was just getting the point that the doctors were all telling us all different things.  Whichever doctor you would get. One doctor would be like, ‘Don’t take Advil.’ Another would be like, ‘Take 600 milligrams of Advil and Motrin.”

Anti-nausea medications weren’t really working and his fever wouldn’t budge. He started to consider going to the emergency room, which, for him, was a tough pill to swallow on its own.  

“For many reasons. I mean, just the expense of it. The fact of the matter that I’m not like a…go sit in the emergency room kinda guy.”

I’m familiar with Dave’s aversion. Ten years ago I saw him remove a cast from his leg with a pair of tin-snips because he didn’t want to go to the hospital.   

But he was coughing, in terrible pain and the sickness was unbearable.

“So I just basically couldn’t take it anymore and went to the hospital in Brooklyn.”

Dave sat in the waiting room for an hour. Then, he was led to an exam room. The door was closed, and he waited for two more hours.

“I, at one point, was screaming for help. And no one came. I mean I could have been dead in that room. I mean someone who was in worse condition lung-wise than me? I mean, they had no idea of my condition. No one had checked anything yet. No one had checked any vitals. No one had done any single thing with me. I was on the floor of an exam room in pain screaming for help.”

Eventually, Dave opened his door and in the hospital hallway began asking for a nurse.  

“That’s how swamped these hospitals were in Brooklyn. I mean there was just thrown in a room and left there.”

When Dave went to the hospital in Brooklyn on the night of March 25th, the coronavirus had all but exhausted New York hospitals of PPE. He didn’t see face shields or protective gowns on the nurses.

“The nurses in the New York hospital had the same dinky masks that like people walking around on the street have and that’s it. And they even told me, a nurse told me, they couldn’t even get tested if they wanted to, themselves. And they wouldn’t test me, I think I asked to be tested. So they wouldn’t test me. They really wouldn’t give me any treatment. I almost felt worse from even having gone there, and then the nurses are all going to get sick.”

He was given four bags of saline and anti-nausea meds. His oxygen levels were checked, and he was deemed healthy enough to go home. Six hours after checking in, he left around 4 a.m..

“I tried to sleep, I tried to feel better. I felt actually a little better after all those fluids for a few hours.”

While Dave and his girlfriend had been isolating in New York, his girlfriend’s mother had suggested they come stay with her in Virginia, in a basement sealed from the rest of the house.

Initially, they were cool to the idea. But Dave’s condition worsened.

“It got the point that she saw how bad symptoms were and we were like, well, what happens if her symptoms get like that?”

There was “no way” Dave was going to another New York hospital. They decided to drive that evening.

“But I just want to say the drive was harrowing. The drive was bad.”

Dave’s nausea wasn’t abiding. He threw up before the car left the curb. Then it was another six grueling hours.

“I couldn’t take a deep breath because I knew I’d cough, and if I coughed it was a lot, a lot of pain. So I was breathing so shallow my girlfriend kept having to check with her hand that I was still breathing. And it was around this time that I was so delirious that I was just in such a dark place. I mean, I sent messages to my sister that I didn’t want to live anymore, that I couldn’t take it anymore, that I couldn’t fight it anymore…that I almost don’t remember sending. I mean, I was ready to die in that car.”

They made it to a hospital in Virginia.

“I remember they pulled me out of the car. And they had kind of like an emergency intake area, built out of like a tent outside the hospital.”

Dave said the first thing he noticed was the PPE. The intake staff was outfitted with masks, face shields, disposable gowns, everything.

“I think I told them, like, I don’t want to die and I’m just extremely sick and I need help.”

He was brought into a pediatric ward that had been converted into a coronavirus emergency room. In a small, sealed room, Dave, barely able to talk, was given morphine.

“And the morphine, once it really kicked in, was the first time I was really able to speak in hours. I didn’t realize that pain was that much of a contributor to me not being able to talk, but whatever it was, I was able to speak. Then they gave me a CAT scan. They wheeled me into the CAT scan room where I had to inhale and hold my breath, which was extremely difficult, and I don’t think I could have done it if I wasn’t on the morphine.”

Dave was given more anti-nausea meds and painkillers. And that’s when he was first tested for COVID-19.

“I was tested for the flu, I was tested for coronavirus, I was tested for probably a bunch of other things. And I think while I was still in that ER is when they discovered I had pneumonia in both my lungs, my lower lungs.”

Dave tested positive for coronavirus. In the ICU he was given oxygen and was monitored, but did not require a ventilator.

“After the first day I was there, the hospital was talking about discharging me already because I didn’t need to be put on a ventilator. So that decision got changed pretty quick, I guess, based on my conditions. And I was there for another day. And in the end I basically started begging to leave. I couldn’t sleep. It was really hard with IV’s in both arms to do much of anything. Even as a normal person, when I’m healthy, I can’t really sleep on my back.

“So it was nightmarish even in there, ya know? And I was hallucinating. I was talking to different versions of myself about how I can get a couple minutes sleep. I was having out-of-body experiences. And it just got the point after a couple days that I just couldn’t take it anymore.

“And I guess I must have been feeling slightly better and I just begged them from that morning…I mean, I wasn’t sleeping, so every hour is kind of the same…but when the nurses changed over in the morning – at whatever time, 9 a.m., maybe earlier, 8 a.m. – I started asking to leave.”

Dave was released on March 28th. His girlfriend, who had a dry cough, fever, loss of taste and smell, was never tested for coronavirus despite showing tell-tale symptoms.

Dave was prescribed antibiotics and Hydroxychloroquine – the anti-malaria drug that President Trump has touted as effective in treating COVID-19, though Dave said his doctors didn’t know how effective the experimental treatment would be. It was a crap-shoot. And nearby pharmacies were out of the drug – they had to drive 45 minutes to pick up the prescription.

“My girlfriend was pretty great and we had a good schedule on the drugs I had to take and when to take them. And eventually after another three days, I think I started being able to eat some solid foods. And that really, I think, turned things around.”

Dave and his girlfriend quarantined for two weeks in the basement. Before returning to Brooklyn, Dave wonders what it will be like, and if his symptoms will return.

“I mean, we don’t really know because around facts coronavirus are still all up in the air, but we’re hoping we’re immune now.  Which puts us in a much different boat than a lot of New Yorkers and especially a lot of people around the city – or in any of the cities in New York – because if we are immune then we are a lot safer than millions of people.”

Dave got sick weeks before the peak of coronavirus in New York. He wasn’t tested in his home state so it’s unlikely his case was recorded in the state’s official count. He wonders how many other people are in a similar situation.

At the time of our interview, New York was still experiencing more than 600 deaths per day. Governor Andrew Cuomo had ordered non-essential workers to remain home until May 15th. A decision had not been made to re-open schools, though several Northeast governors banded together to take a regional approach to reopening.

Though President Trump said he would leave reopening up to the governors, he took to Twitter to encourage protestors in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia – states all led by Democratic governors – who were demanding the states reopen amid the crashing economy. A similar group of protesters had recently appeared outside the New York state capitol in Albany.

Dave, who hoped sharing the reality of his experience would maybe prevent someone else from suffering from the virus, followed the news in his recovery.

“The only thing I can say is I think it’s astronomically stupid. Astronomically stupid. Especially in New York. I mean, if anyone saw the things I saw in the hospitals there, they would not be doing it. I think it’s just a matter of…unless you know someone that this happened to or it happened to you, people find it hard to believe. I mean, and also because of the range of symptoms. The fact that my girlfriend could still function having the same virus that I did and other people be completely asymptomatic, or have very mild symptoms, you know…if you only know people with mild symptoms then you think, ‘Oh what’s the risk? Oh, it’s only old people dying. It’s just the flu. Yada yada…’ But the reality is you don’t know. I mean, I’m 34 and healthy and it almost took me out.”

Dave said it was the healthcare workers in Virginia who saved his life. But the people on his mind the most nearly a month after he developed symptoms are those who risked their lives at work in the New York City hospital.

“In the end of this all, the people who I feel the most for are the healthcare workers in New York. Like I’m getting emotional right now even thinking about it.”

I first learned of Dave’s illness through a text from a friend, who had seen posts written by Dave on Facebook, the first on March 26th.  Hundreds of well-wishes and comments are on that page.

“All I can say is that when I was that hospital and I wasn’t sleeping and I was delirious that every piece of love that I felt helped me get through it. And even if I couldn’t’ respond to people, like, it was meaningful to me. And I really believe that love has power. Physically.”

I told him over the phone it sounded like he was ready to start a new religion. He laughed.

“Yeah, maybe I’ll start a cult after all this.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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