Shortly upon returning to Santa Clara from his vacation to Norway and London earlier this year, George found himself in a battle for his life after contracting COVID-19. Within days of arriving home, he developed flu-like symptoms which quickly worsened. In early March, his wife, Kim, took him to El Camino Health’s Mountain View hospital where he tested positive for the virus. He spent the next three months hospitalized, mostly unconscious with a high fever and intubated.
“I have few memories of the day I went to the hospital,” says George. “Within 48 hours of my arrival at El Camino Hospital, I was moved to the ICU with a fever of 104 and had to be intubated.”
His condition rapidly became dire and within three days, he was transferred to a San Francisco hospital to be placed on an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine because his oxygen saturation levels had dropped to dangerous levels.
The COVID-19 virus affects the interface between the blood and the lungs and although George was breathing with the aid of the ventilator, there was little to no oxygen getting to his lungs. Transferring him to a hospital with an ECMO machine saved his life as his fight against the virus quickly became a life or death situation.
George had never been hospitalized before and has no underlying conditions. He was a healthy 65-year-old avid ocean sailor who once raced to Hawaii and the Sea of Cortez. He had just gone cross-country skiing in Norway along with his wife. Although COVID-19 was beginning to spread outside of China at that time, they had not traveled to where the virus was present … or so they thought.
“At the time, no one had much experience handling the virus and the teams at both hospitals took very heroic measures to save me,” explains George.
Doctors also tried several experimental drugs that had shown some promise in fighting the virus. No one is certain they were effective. He lost 37 pounds and regained consciousness for only brief periods of time, at which point he would Facetime with his wife or try to communicate with his caregivers by pointing to letters of the alphabet in response to their inquiries. It was slow and tedious, but George says everyone was very patient with him.
The most difficult part of it all was that Kim could not be with him or go to see him. As she sheltered in place, she relied on the nursing team to keep her updated about everything happening with George. It was a very scary and lonely time for her.
George had a series of COVID-19 tests at the end of April and finally tested negative for the virus, which meant he was no longer contagious. Once he was stabilized in early May, George was transferred back to El Camino Health’s Mountain View intensive care unit where he spent a week before being moved to a regular room.
He spent a total of seven weeks and three days on the ventilator and developed pneumonia from being on the ventilator for so long. The intensive care team at El Camino Health helped him recover and regain his strength. On May 14, he was well enough to relocate to the inpatient Acute Rehabilitation Center at El Camino Health’s Los Gatos campus. After two weeks of intensive rehabilitation, George was discharged home at the end of May, where he is receiving physical, occupational and speech therapy twice weekly. He walks with a walker because he is still weak; but is working hard to regain his strength and hopes to recover fully.
“My therapists gave me pretty rigorous homework before I could go home, but I keep pushing myself so I can get back to where I was before I got this virus,” explains George.
Due to the tube feedings he received while he was hospitalized, George had to regain muscle control in his throat so he could chew and swallow again. With the help of a speech therapist, he slowly advanced from a liquid diet to soft foods and mechanically ground food, to eating small bites of regular food.
Kim describes George as a man with a great attitude and is so appreciative of the therapy team who helped George come home and help him get stronger every day.
“The doctors and nurses kept saying how strong and what a fighter he was, and the medical care he received was exceptional,” says Kim.
“Everyone at El Camino was kind, compassionate and really sweet,” adds George. “I know they have a tough job to do and not all the outcomes are as successful as mine. I am so happy and appreciative they stood by me and helped me get better.”
Life is slowly returning to some sort of normal for George and Kim. Friends drop by to check on him while keeping their distance and his therapy is hard, but he is making good progress. His lung capacity has been diminished and he is hopeful to be able to sail again soon, if only to give orders to someone else who can pull the ropes for now. Adventurous retirees, George and Kim aren’t letting this setback curtail their plans to travel again in the future.
George advises people to adhere to social distancing and take the CDC precautions seriously.
“The chance you will catch this virus may be low, but if you do, it is nothing to mess around with,” he says.