Coma in the Time of CoronavirusCIR2020-06-11T14:45:45-04:00
Our family lives in Westchester, NY, an early U.S. hotspot for the virus. My 50-year old healthy husband had a routine colonoscopy on Feb. 26, 2020, that showed asmall cancerous mass in his colon—but small enough that removal would be the full and final cure. He did everything the doctors told him to do. He was the perfect patient. He underwent every scan and test that they asked of him in early March without complaint, as the COVID-19 pandemic was worsening in New York with each passing moment. His surgery was scheduled for March 16th, at Weill Cornell New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
On March 13th, the surgeon’s office called to cancel his surgery, explaining that all non-essential surgeries were being cancelled due to the pandemic. “How can removing a known cancer before it spreads not be essential?” was my husband’s haunting question back to them. His anxiety spiked because he knew that the pandemic could prevent this surgery from happening indefinitely, allowing the cancer to grow unchecked inside him.
During the week of March 16th, his doctor miraculously found a way to go ahead with the surgery.So on March 23rd, I dropped him at the front door of the hospital. He bravely walked in alone, right into the perfect storm. It felt so wrong to leave him like that, butnew COVID-19 hospital protocol prevented visitors. The rules seemed to be changing by the minute in an effort to contain thecontagion. So I sat in my car on York Avenue and waited for him to tell me thatthe surgery was about to start. Then I drove back to our house along silent streets and empty avenues to stay put and shelter in place with our children, ages 21, 20 and 17.
That night when he woke up from the surgery, a nurse called me from the recovery room to interrogate me about our college-age daughter’s cough. So they tested my husband for COVID-19 and isolated him until the test came back the next day,indicating that he did not have the virus. But the following day, less than 48 hours after the surgery, he developed a fever and his blood pressure dropped. He called me from his hospital bed and said in a small voice that he was starting to get a very bad feeling about things….
On the next day, March 26th, the unthinkable happened. The surgeon called to say that they would need to perform an emergency surgery to repair a suspected perforation in his colon, because they could see fluid collecting in his abdomen. When they called later that night after the second surgery was over, they told us that he had suffered sepsis and was staying on a ventilator.His lungs were not strong enough for him to breathe on his own. And that was the very moment that I began to hold my breath.
On the news each day for the next 17 days all the talk was of hospital beds and ventilators for COVID-19 patients, and the fear that we would run out of both. And this became the backdrop to our family’s breath-holding vigil while my husband stayed on his own ventilator, fighting for his life. They tested him three moretimes for COVID-19 while he lay in that medically induced coma. But he defied them by remainingnegative for the virus, in spite ofso many other ICU patients in the hospital testing positive. It seems that the ventilator was helpingto keep him safe from the virus. How ironic.
The whole world went into a deep pause, one that paralleled his, and tried to eclipse his life-and-death struggle in a New York City hospital. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed constituents every day with the coronavirus update, while I would address our family and friends with my own hospital status update. Then, finally, the ICU team took him off the ventilator. It was in the afternoon on April 11th, our daughter’s birthday—the very daythat he was made a dad and stood in a hospital holding our newborn baby 22 years ago—and we all took abreath. It was also Holy Saturday, and it felt like such a moment of resurrection, and of hope and faith and life, even surpassing the celebration of the real Resurrection the following day, Easter Sunday.
He woke with a full beard and confused blinking eyes to a shielded, masked, gowned and gloved world, with no family or loved ones allowed near him. Nobody he knew couldhold his hand as he tried to make sense of where he was and what had happened to him. On April 15th—day 24 in the hospital—I was allowed to drop off his prescription eyeglasses at the front door, to help him see, but they still would not let me in to see him. But he has a strong will to live and he will come through this. His resilience will shine a light bright enough to show him the way out of there. I believe that with all of my heart. And that is what we are all still praying for each day. His kidneys just need to start working fully again. And he needs to come out of that ICU and out of that hospital, and not catch the virus in the process.