Greg and Leslie Wei were prepping their Thanksgiving meal for two when Leslie said she didn’t feel well and went to lie down.
Greg felt increasingly lousy, too, and three days later he was struggling to breathe. The emergency room sent him home with an inhaler to help with his breathing and a pulse oximeter to measure the level of oxygen in his blood.
By Tuesday, Dec. 1, his COVID-19 diagnosis confirmed, Greg was back in the ER, but was still not sick enough to admit.
On the third trip, a day later, he was sick enough.
His blood oxygen level had sunk into the 70s; below 95 is considered concerning. Other tests indicated his organs were failing. He remembers hearing a doctor say, “I’m giving him a shot of dexamethasone.”
Then, he blacked out.
He remembers nothing more until Jan. 12, five-and-a-half weeks later.
Greg, of San Leandro, California, south of Berkeley, thinks he contracted COVID-19 at a friend’s house where he stayed for a night on the way to Seattle to help out his younger sister for a few days. He spent another night on the way back.
He tested negative for the virus the day after his return from Seattle, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, but the test he took the following Sunday was positive.
As sick as he was, and as close to death as Greg came over those five-and-a-half weeks, he feels incredibly lucky to have fallen ill when he did. If he had gotten sick during the first wave of cases a year ago, he would have almost certainly died.
Treatment, though still challenging and imperfect, has improved significantly since those early days when doctors were still struggling to understand what the SARS-CoV-2 virus could do to the human body.
It did it all to Greg.
During those lost weeks of his life, Greg was put on a ventilator to combat the two types of pneumonia in his lungs and on diuretics and dialysis as his kidneys failed. He was given an antibiotic to tackle a bacterial pneumonia usually seen in dogs and cats, but which had snuck into his lungs. He needed a blood transfusion because his red blood count was so low.
“If he could have issues, he had them,” said Leslie, who bore the brunt of Greg’s illness, while he lay, oblivious, in the intensive care unit at the Kaiser Permanente San Leandro Medical Center. “I just think the doctors did an incredible, amazing job of navigating through this.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Greg would have been put on a ventilator right away, perhaps weakening his lungs. He received the steroid dexamethasone, proven last summer in a British trial to limit deadly inflammation and save lives. He got remdesivir for two days, but then his kidney function worsened, so doctors, unsure if it would do any good anyway, took him off.
He received blood thinners to prevent COVID-19-related strokes, although these too have shown mixed results in scientific studies.
He wasn’t given monoclonal antibodies on either of those first two ER visits – drugs that are believed to be highly effective if given to high-risk people at an early stage of disease.
Greg, who works in information technology at the Federal Reserve, was overweight and had a few health issues, which would have put him at high risk for a bad case of COVID-19. He’s kicking himself now for not asking for monoclonal antibodies, which might have made a profound difference.
Former President Donald Trump found monoclonals so effective against his own bout of COVID-19, he ordered the government to buy hundreds of millions of doses of the drugs and provide them for free to high-risk Americans.
But as with many at-risk patients, no one in the emergency room suggested Greg get the drugs. They take an hour to deliver by infusion, and most busy emergency rooms don’t have the staff or resources to provide them.
Plus, no one expected Greg at age 53 would have such a bad response to COVID-19.
Around the 28th or 29th of December – Leslie’s memories are a bit of a blur – she was allowed to see her husband for the first time since dropping him off at the door to the ER on Dec. 2. For a half an hour, she held his hand, touched his forehead and talked to him. He opened his eyes a bit.
Greg doesn’t remember the encounter, but perhaps because of it, his condition started to improve, ever-so-slightly at first. “It seemed like it was a domino effect in a positive way,” Leslie recalled. A few days later, doctors were able to take him off the ventilator that had helped him breathe for a month.
But unsure how long he would linger in this difficult state, doctors wanted to make his feeding tube more permanent. Leslie and Greg’s sister, Jennifer, who were jointly monitoring his health, gave their go-ahead to the procedure.
“They were about to drill my stomach and apparently I woke up or something. I have a semi-memory of this,” Greg said.
Leslie was allowed in for a second time to help decide what to do.
“At some point Greg said to me, ‘There’s no point in getting a tube in my stomach,'” she remembers. He told her he already had tubes in his nose, “and I’m going to wait to eat on my own.”
“I don’t remember being cogent,” Greg added.
But he was right. “He started to be able to eat in about a week,” Leslie said.
While he was hospitalized, Leslie kept busy with her work in real estate, tracking Greg’s treatments through his online medical records, talking to his doctor every day, and providing regular updates on Facebook to more than 100 friends and family members.
“I had all sorts of distractions and things to keep me busy,” Leslie said during the first of two extended interviews with the couple.
But it wasn’t easy. “I got down on my knees every night, which I haven’t done since I was a child, and prayed to the powers that be up above to help guide the doctors and nurses, to help keep this man around, because he’s such a good, kind man.”
Greg interrupted her to say she was straying off topic.
“We need people like Greg who are kind,” she insisted, ignoring his modesty. “He puts everyone first.”
Greg doesn’t regret missing most of that terrible time.
“I’m lucky in a lot of ways. Not just the fact that I’m alive, but I don’t remember any of this,” he said. “That in itself is a huge mercy.”
Greg, who tries to be upbeat – “What’s the point in being grumpy?” – hasn’t had any nightmares or the post traumatic stress that torments many people who spend even a few days on a ventilator.
“Leslie has the worst of it,” he said.
“My prayers have been answered,” she responded. “Here he is.”
Greg was released from the hospital on Jan. 25, two weeks after regaining consciousness and sent to a long-term care facility for rehabilitation.
His discharge medication list ran more than two pages:
Insulin, dextrose and glucagon to help balance his blood sugar.
Epoetin to treat anemia caused by his kidney failure.
Amiodarone to treat heart rhythm problems.
Diltiazem and metoprolol for high blood pressure.
Famotidine, which treats heartburn, but has also been indicated as a possible treatment for COVID-19.
Melatonin to help with sleep.
A vitamin supplement to help recover his nutritional balance.
Metoclopramide, bisacodyl, polyethylene glycol, lactulose and senna leaf extract to treat digestive issues.
Tamsulosin to help with water retention.
Venlafaxine to treat nerve pain.
Heparin and low-dose aspirin to reduce the risk of blood clots.
Chlorhexidine gluconate to clean his wound sites.
Sodium chloride to rebalance blood sodium levels.
Guaifenesin to thin mucus and relieve congestion.
Trazodone to help with sleep and mood.
Lidocaine to treat irregular heartbeats and pain.
Acetaminophen for pain, too.
He stayed about three weeks in long-term care before returning home the day before Valentine’s Day. After missing Christmas and New Year’s in the hospital, he spent his 54th birthday in rehab. Leslie brought him flowers and homemade cookies.
Greg’s COVID-19 recovery continues.
He’s slowly building his energy back up. At first, while still in the hospital, he barely had the strength to sit up. His blood pressure would drop every time he tried.
He had to ask a nurse to open a can of soda. It was too much for him to pull the tab.
At the rehab facility, they pushed him to navigate the corridors with a walker.
Now, he can negotiate the two-bedroom apartment he shares with Leslie, and make it around the block, with her by his side for company and reassurance.
His balance is still off and walking remains a challenge. An injury to his left calf and numbness up his thigh means his foot drops when he walks – a result perhaps of caregivers having to repeatedly position him on his stomach to help clear his lungs.
He might need surgery to fix that.
He’s probably stuck with the motor control problem that leaves his hands shaking when he reaches for something. Doctors blame it on a loss of oxygen at some point during his hospitalization, which damaged the part of the brain that controls fine motor skills.
And Greg still gets tired and dizzy after standing for too long.
“The good news is I can stand for 20 minutes. But I do get winded,” he said.
Leslie is trying to be supportive, offering him various household tasks to complete – dishes, garbage, cat litter, bills – if he feels up to it, so he doesn’t have to focus entirely on feeling like an invalid.
“I’m not pushing him on anything but I’m offering up if he wants to participate and give him the opportunity to feel like he’s back in the groove,” she said. “I think it’s a mental and physical thing that will help him recover.”
Greg is trying to sit in front of a computer for up to four hours a day, prepping to hopefully be able to go back to work part-time in a week or two. But he still needs afternoon naps some days.
“I’ll get dizzy and tired and I have to lay down,” he said.
“And that’s okay,” Leslie quickly interjected.
“It’s all right,” he said.
“That’s how it is right now,” she responded. “It’s never going to be exactly the way it was.”
But Greg’s counting his blessings.
His job with the Federal Reserve comes with excellent insurance. Unlike many people who have to pick up 20% of their medical costs even if they have insurance, Greg owes almost nothing for his $1.3 million in care.
“I’m really stoked that I don’t have a $250,000 hospital bill,” he said. That would drive the couple into bankruptcy.
Instead of worrying about money, he can focus on getting strong enough to go back to work.
“I’ll be fine,” Greg said. “I’ll get there.”
Contact Karen Weintraub at [email protected]
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