It is 2020 and we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. There are many opinions on the subject, so I will just stick to the facts here. In the USA we have had over 5.5 million infections resulting in 178,692 deaths. Almost 3 million have fully recovered. That leaves a big number – because while we focus on death, we tend to ignore the devastation a virus wreaks on a human, and the long-term results. As studies emerge, we are finding that between 30-50% will have long term lung damage. As many as 20% will suffer heart damage. After that we see cases of stroke, brain injury, chronic fatigue and long-term cognitive disfunction. Looking beyond the simple death stats, it becomes obvious that millions of Americans, and their families, will suffer from, and pay for, COVID-19 well into the future.
Back in 2019 another virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), recorded some of the highest number of cases ever for that mosquito-borne illness. There were only 36 confirmed cases in the U.S. Out of those, 1/3 died in the hospital. For the 24 survivors, they found themselves in a range from complete disability to various states of cognitive disfunction, vision problems, movement and instability issues, paralyses, epilepsy, and seizures. While it is a killer disease, the survivors, and their loved ones, will pay the price well into the future.
I am one of those survivors. Here is my story.
In the wee small hours of the morning on August 19th, my wife, Diana, called 911. I was experiencing a host of symptoms, but what finally prompted the call was a series of small seizures. If you live in the city limits of Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, like I do, that call will result in a driveway full of first responders. I had on hand, almost immediately, a Hamilton County EMS crew, SDPD officers, the SDFD, and, of course, most of my neighbors. I am not complaining – it took five of the first responders to get my spasmodic body on a gurney and into the ambulance. The EMS crew made the correct call and we headed to Erlanger Hospital, the only Level 1 Trauma center in the area.
Once in the ER, I felt, briefly, almost normal. Three of my kids (who lived close by) came in to check on Dad, I recall Chick-fil-a showing up, and the usual witty banter that happens when Fleshman kids convene. But that day I had a massive and scary 22-minute seizure, was intubated, and the journey began. For the following week I was unconscious, and my fever hovered at 104 – way too much for an adult – as the then-unknown virus attacked my brain. The trauma team did all they knew to do to keep me alive while the doctors sought the cause of my distress. Every test and procedure known was performed. I had MRI scans from top to bottom. I had a spinal tap, blissfully in la-la land, and the fluid rushed off for examination. This was a terrifying time for my wife and family, watching me lay there under cooling blankets, intubated, a tangle of IV lines and wires attached to my still body. It did not look good.
But by the grace of God and the prayers of many, I survived the attack. Only to wake up with no movement in my legs, largely unintelligible speech, severe double vision, and serious cognitive dysfunction. I was alive, but it still did not look good. And they did not have a diagnosis.
What doctors dislike most is internet doctors. You know it’s true – self-diagnosis from a medical expert (you) and then the nice doc shows you the errors of your way. We have seen this in abundance during the current corona-crisis, where anyone with access to the internet is suddenly an expert, but without that pesky 12 years of education and the resulting student loans. But as my wife sat there during those days she stumbled upon a rare infection, caused by a bite from a mosquito, call EEE. The doctors said that was not possible, as there had never been a confirmed case of human EEE in Tennessee. Ever. The Gulf states? Sure. Massachusetts? Absolutely. Michigan? A hot bed of EEE. But never in Tennessee.
EEE has a 10-14-day incubation period – and that is when the light bulb, well, lit. We had traveled to Gulf Shores just 12 days prior. I officiated the on-the-beach surprise wedding (they had not informed the guests of their plans) for our dear friends Dale and Sharon. It was a great time of fun and family and love – idyllic in every way. On the way home we stopped at a rest stop in Alabama for a picnic. It was near a farm, and the pests were, um, pest-y. And it turns out that while the EEE-carrying mosquitos prefer to bite birds, a good horse will do (hence the Equine in the name) and, push come to shove, a handy human will suffice.
With the new information, the doctors doubled down. They sent my spinal samples and blood work, along with the MRIs, to the CDC in Atlanta. I was awake in a room on the 3rd floor at Erlanger when Dr. A came in (no disrespect, but we couldn’t say his Sudanese name, at all). He was a very friendly young man, very personable, and he brought Diana the report and said – “You were right.” We had our diagnosis, not that there was a cure, but at least we now knew which direction we were headed.
That direction was rehabilitation. I could not walk or perform Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) and that is when I discovered the real jewel of Chattanooga health care. Siskin Hospital for Rehabilitation is right next door to Erlanger, and that’s where they rolled me after three weeks at Erlanger. They had saved my life, but now the challenge was to get as much life back as was possible.
Not that many years ago, if you had a brain injury your recovery was minimal. It was up to your body and brain to find its way back. But physical therapy has advanced, and it is solid science now. A stroke patient, a brain trauma survivor, an encephalitis victim can all find restored function. It is challenging work and watching the room full of suffering patients being cared for by the roomful of trained PTs, SLPs, and OTs is inspirational. I went from barely able to stand with assistance to pushing a shopping cart to maneuvering a walker and climbing stairs in just a couple weeks. Add in cognitive therapy to get my brain back on track, vision therapy to get my eyes sorta-focused, OT so I could care for myself and get dressed, and you have a modern miracle of medical science. In just three weeks I was mobile, somewhat confident, functional. And happy. Because the PTs, nurses, CNAs at Siskin are a loving, caring, motivating bunch. Unlike that unfortunate Humpty-Dumpty, and all the king’s men and horses, these folks can put you back together again. If you just cooperate.
But they do not waste time. And just when I was getting comfortable in my large room-with-a-view, where my loving wife slept every night alongside me, they kicked me to the curb. Well, okay, they gently and lovingly wheeled me to the car. You see, the goal of therapy is to get you out, back home, the sooner the better.
So, after all that I was all better, right? Nope. When you suffer a medical calamity, it leaves a mark. Your body, your soul, even your spirit will be impacted for all time. There is recovery, but there is no going back to where I was August 18th. Those 6+ weeks of trauma changed my life forever. I am left with serious vision problems, instability, fatigue, short-term memory loss. And a badly damaged brain. All that means I cannot work, struggle to read comfortably, and am typing this with the screen at 260%. I get exhausted doing things that were once a breeze, and hand-eye coordination, indeed, brain-body coordination makes former hobbies and activities a challenge. I have lost a lot, and that is why I started this blog with our current pandemic. Many may argue the percentages of COVID-19 deaths (“99.96% survive!”) downplaying the danger, but I’ll tell you, whether there are 5 million cases or 36 cases, when it happens to you and your family it is 100%. There will be a lot of folks like me after this is over.
But with loss comes gain. I am alive, one year later. I am happy, in every way. I celebrate life and whisper “Thank you Jesus” when my eyes open in the morning. I have seen the love of my wife and children pull me through the worst crisis of my life. I have seen the love of complete strangers – the EMS crew, doctors I will never meet, nurses and CNAs and technicians that all applied their skill and care to keep me alive. I have felt the love of the PT team that was focused on making me function. In short, I saw the humanity that we think is lacking, but is actually in abundance all around us.
And while I will never forget what happened to me, I am reminded of these words:
“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” Philippians 3:12-14, The Message
Okay, I’m not running. But glad to be walking and enjoying my life, basking in the love of doting wife, adoring children, caring friends, and a wonderful community.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.