By Kevin Harris, as told to Jennifer Clopton
I’m a pretty tough guy. I am 55 years old and can’t tell you the last time I got sick. I played football in high school, and I’ve worked hard to stay fit since then: I work out an hour and a half a day, bench press 350 pounds, run 10 miles at a time, and eat healthy.
I’m a strong guy – but COVID-19 nearly took me out. This virus almost killed me. It took me to the brink of death, and I still can’t believe I came back.
The first symptom I felt was a tickle in my throat. Now, I’m telling you – this virus has a personality and a mind of its own. It does what it wants to do, and from the very first symptom, it let me know it was there and that it was different than anything I’d ever experienced before. It started with the weirdest tickle. It was so persistent. I kept trying to clear it, but it was stuck in the back of my throat. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t go away.
Two hours later, I got a cough. I went home, took some vitamin C and went to bed. The next morning, I woke up with what I thought was the flu. Keep in mind, at that time we only had 4 coronavirus cases in the whole state of Ohio and none in my county. So, I just assumed I had the flu. I went to the doctor, and they assumed the same. They didn’t give me an actual flu test; they just sent me home with Tamiflu.
I took it, but every day I got sicker and sicker. My fever was consistently 102 or 103 degrees. I had a headache like I’ve never had before. The pressure in my skull felt like my brain was about to explode. The body aches were horrible, and they weren’t just regular body aches. My bones, muscles, joints and even my toenails actually hurt! Literally. The pressure of the blanket on my feet hurt my toenails.
Then there was the fatigue, which was soul-crushing. It would take me 20 minutes to get from my bed to the bathroom. I would go a few steps and have to lay down on the floor to catch my breath and pause because I would get so dizzy and nauseous. There were times it took me an hour to go downstairs to the refrigerator. And one day when I got down there, I was so tired, I pulled ingredients for a ham sandwich out, put them on the floor and sat there to make the sandwich and eat it. That sounds so gross, but at the time, it was all I could do.
By the 6th day, I was lying in bed, coughed 3 times and then I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I had a cup of oxygen left and I remember thinking – if I cough again, I’m going to die. I called a friend who drove me to the hospital.
I tested negative for the flu, so they did a chest x-ray and the doctor came in and said – ‘That’s the strangest pneumonia I have ever seen.’ When they started asking me if I’d been to China or knew someone who tested positive with the coronavirus – that’s when I got really scared.
‘You think I have the coronavirus?’ I remember asking in shock.
The test that confirms it is a horrible test to experience. They send a swab up through your nose and throat – and it’s not a typical swab. It’s scratchy, and it feels like it touches your brain. It’s awful. It came back 4 days later showing I was positive for COVID-19. By that time, I was already in the ICU. I’d been there for 4 days. My conditioned worsened, and I was one step away from needing a ventilator. Thankfully, I never did get to that point.
Still, I spent 13 days in the hospital – about 8 of them in the ICU, and I developed ICU psychosis. I was so sick that I was hallucinating, and I thought there were people in my room trying to kill me. The virus, in my head, took the form of 3 men walking around my room taunting me and waiting for me to die.
I fought with the hospital staff to lay still because it was the only way to reduce my pain. But they insisted that I needed to move so the pneumonia in my lungs wouldn’t crystallize. Just sitting up was nauseating though and took so much effort I would sweat through my sheets. I’m a tough guy, but I was alone and sick, and I just didn’t feel like I could battle this virus.
One day I did talk with my son on the phone and I remember him saying – ‘Dad – you have to fight.’ It turned something around in me, and I started to do that. It helped that after 4 days my COVID-19 test came back positive, and that’s when they gave me the experimental malaria drug hydroxychloroquine along with the antibiotic azithromycin. They’d been giving me lots of vitamins too including – B, B12, C, and Riboflavin. [Editor's note: Since this story was published, the FDA has cautioned against treating COVID-19 with hydroxcloroquine. There's no evidence that the drug reduces death or speeds recovery, and it can come with serious side effects, the agency said.]
There were side effects from hydroxychloroquine including highly elevated liver enzymes that concerned the hospital staff, but after 4 days, I did start to get better. I knew I had turned a corner when I threw up and the act of doing that no longer made me feel like I was going to have a heart attack.
I’m home now, recovering and feeling a lot better, although I still don’t have much energy and the cough is lingering. But my last coronavirus test, about 10 days ago, was still positive, and it’s not easy to get tests here where I live. So I’m just saying home and continuing to self isolate. I’ll do that for at least 14 days after my symptoms go away.
I have nightmares at night about other people dying from this. I know I came really close. I can’t imagine how people who are vulnerable – the elderly or those with underlying conditions –can muster the strength to fight this virus because I still don’t know how I did it. This virus is a beast like you’ve never seen. It felt like it had me by the throat, and it attacked with a vengeance. It’s the worst thing I’ve seen or experienced in my life. It is not a joke. It never occurred to me I would survive this, and I remember thinking at one point, ‘I don’t want to die like this - alone, isolated, in terrible pain, and scared.’
I was at the point of death, and I have no idea how I came back from that torment. But I do know now that I need to tell my story because I need people to know what this is like. You don’t want to experience it. I don’t want you to experience that.
If you aren’t scared – you aren’t paying attention. Pay attention!
Physically distance yourself from others and take this virus seriously. It’s alive. It’s a breathing monster. Don’t play with it. Stay away. Take it seriously now, while you have the chance, before it’s too late and you realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made. Now it’s about coming together and getting everyone on the same page to fight this together. If we do that, there will be a lot less damage.
Kevin Harris is a collision repair specialist, custom car painter and industrial electrician in Warren, Ohio. He chronicled his hospital journey with COVID-19 in videos on Facebook, which can be found in part here. He’s now started a public Facebook group - Coronavirus Warriors - to connect people during this crisis.