The ‘aloneness’ is the biggest fear when COVID-19 takes over, says Brampton resident who beat the beast
It’s easy to die.
People do it all the time.
It’s one of humanity’s shared experiences.
When the bell tolls, it tolls for thee – and then for the rest of us.
When people are in the throes of death, they are usually surrounded by loved ones who can ease their passage.
But that’s not the way it works with this pandemic.
Dying alone is a chilling sidebar to any COVID-19 story.
The movement from lightness to darkness might begin with a slight cough and flu-like chills and end in extreme duress. What happened to sufferers in many New York City hospitals – the dead placed in a body bag and stacked up in temporary morgues in refrigerated trucks for safe keeping until they could be properly interred – seemed the ultimate horror.
Most victims’ tales remain untold because in the end, they were intubated and silenced by the disease. Loved ones can’t bear witness, either, because they would face exposure to this most contagious virus.
The last people these patients often see are strangers, the doctors and nurses encased in their personal protective equipment who are duty bound to keep them comfortable. Often, they double as surrogate family members and offer words of comfort before the patient succumbs to the illness.
We’ve heard the caregivers’ touching or macabre stories, and the worst came out of Italy when ICU doctors were forced to play God and choose between those who would or wouldn’t receive a ventilator.
This plague isolates, then destroys. But in some cases, certain people summon up the strength to fight back, and dodge death.
Brampton’s Dave Carr is one of them, a 58-year-old once-married bachelor who lives in a condo in the downtown core.
He is now free from complete isolation, and can breathe the springtime air – something he once took for granted – and spoke with The Pointer.
He’s okay with any of the restrictions imposed on him – just a few weeks ago he was in a life-or-death struggle with the virus on the COVID-19 floor at Brampton Civic Hospital.
He was in so much distress, “I thought I would die.”
Brampton's Dave Carr, right
Carr is a mountain of a man, and when he entered the front doors of Civic on Thursday April 9th, he was already in the grip of the swarming pathogen – short of breath, and struggling to fill out his admittance form. Two personal stats stuck out on the sheet, his height (6-foot-3) and weight (290 pounds).
He’s a gentle giant, the epitome of everyman, a hail-fellow-well-met type who casts his friendship net over a large portion of North America.
He once starred as a defensive end for his high school at J.A. Turner and played some rep hockey. He was a work boots and varsity-jacket guy. He loved all sports – competitive bass fishing and hydroplane boat racing are his passions now.
He’s been a mainstay in the construction business for most of his adult life, and for the past 21 years, has worked at St. Marys CBM Ready-Mix from his office at the company’s cement plant in Milton.
A few weeks ago, the hulking man was quickly reduced to a frail, diseased host.
The virulence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the disease, can cripple even the strongest.
The word pathogen comes from the Greek pathos, which means suffer, and gene or genes, for borne: Borne of suffering.
Carr bears witness to this.
He told The Pointer the biggest fear from his week-long struggle on the COVID-19 floor at Civic (the epicenter for treatment in Brampton) was his “aloneness,” and “not knowing my fate.” They still haunt him even weeks after his release from hospital.
But what left him most shaken “was knowing that there was absolutely nothing I could do to impact my own destiny.”
This was particularly hard because “there was so much life I still wanted to live.”
Dave Carr can't wait to fish again
COVID-19 is untreatable because it’s a rogue virus that jumped from animal to man in a Chinese wet market. Its infection rate is distressing, even compared to some of the worst contagions, and when it strikes, it can strip the body bare.
Its route of attack typically starts in the nasopharynx, behind the nose to the upper part of the throat, and in extreme cases, works itself deep into the lungs. Other organs – liver, bowels and heart – could be targeted as well, and it might take the body a whole week before it even recognizes that it has been invaded.
That stirs up a call to arms in the immune system, which might kill this killer, but could also take out the host body as well.
Millions of years have programmed the body’s immune system into a sometimes-violent response that has saved humanity from a primordial soup of killer micro-organisms that first appeared on our planet about four billion years ago.
In our hyper-reactive state, an amazing wonder of nature begins. Billions of white blood cells (the ones used to attack viruses are called lymphocytes) are constantly produced by our bone marrow and an army of soldiers is released in waves into the blood stream to destroy the tiny invaders.
Our body temperature begins to rise, becoming febrile, to make the virus uncomfortable; it thrives under the cooler conditions of our normal resting state.
Inflammatory cells are sent throughout the lungs to destroy the virus which can do severe damage to our airways once they reach. Fluids are also secreted to attack the infection.
The soldiering of this entire orchestration wipes the patient out, and the body crashes while the immune system draws all the energy it can to fight.
Carr’s body was becoming a biohazard, and his crash came on Thursday April 9th, which kicked off “three days in hell.”
It ended when he awoke on a Sunday morning and could breathe without pain for the first time in a week. It was also a realization that he wouldn't die. His body had slayed what is now being called, “the beast.”
The battle took its toll, and Carr is still unsure which damage was worse: to his body or his soul.
He has lost some function in his left lung and doesn’t know if other organs were affected. He is still suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as if he were a shell-shocked infantryman returning from the front lines – all wounds now internal.
Carr created a bit of a buzz online when he posted two emotional Facebook posts to his family and friends. The first was made the day after his release from the hospital on April 15th. He was in a weakened state, his voice rubbed raw from his close call. He went online because he didn’t have the strength to return all the calls of good cheer that he’d received during his ordeal.
“If you call and I don’t call back, it’s just because I don’t have the strength,” he said in his posting.
His routine these days is simple: he sips water and tea and tries to remain hydrated, and feels as if each hour in seclusion or stepping outside has him feeling as if his body is slowly returning from the abyss. Having the virus inside him was “the most unbelievable filthy feeling your body could ever experience,” he says.
Carr’s life-and-death struggle started subtly and featured an ironic twist. On the 30th of March, he held a teleconference meeting with other plants from his Milton office because he was the firm’s health and safety manager.
The subject of that morning’s discussion was COVID-19, and plans were laid out to keep facilities clean and all the hand washing stations in tip-top shape. The meeting was well received. The company wanted to be as responsible as possible and get ahead of the virus.
But by Saturday, April 4, Carr didn’t feel well (achy and fluey) and breathing was extremely difficult. He was taken to Brampton Civic, given a bag of IV fluids, and sent home. By April 7, he was worse and called his Brampton doctor, Dr. Simran Takhar, who urged him to go to the Peel Memorial Wellness Centre campus where a tent had been erected for coronavirus testing.
Carr was still in denial. (Me? COVID-19? Not a chance!) He took the nasal swab test and went home, and again, symptoms accelerated and sent him spiralling back down a darkened staircase.
By now, it had doubled up in intensity. A day later, Takhar called and told him he had tested positive. Carr knew he was in trouble, but just how much came a day later.
On Thursday, April 9, he called for an ambulance which rushed him to Brampton Civic.
His body ached, and he felt as if he were sucking air through a thin straw, much like someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This was alarming because he didn’t smoke.
At admittance, he couldn’t think straight, and had trouble filling out his form, or articulating his condition. Little did he know his blood oxygen saturation levels were exceedingly low. His lungs were not effectively oxygenating the blood, and later on he was told he was probably suffering hypoxia, which cuts off oxygen to the brain.
Things started to move in double-up time. He was given a blood test, a lung x-ray, and then taken up to the COVID-19 floor, the former respiratory department that had been converted to accept patients just like him. Normal blood-oxygen levels are in the high 90 percentage range, but once his numbers dipped, confusion, lethargy, and real fear set in.
Carr knew the stakes were high when he was admitted because he’d been chilled by the images of the ICUs in Italy and New York City. CNN was broadcasting the crisis non-stop, and even one of its popular night-time hosts, Chris Cuomo, had come down with the virus and was isolated at home. Hell, even the Prime Minister’s wife had it. This was the most democratic of illnesses – it targeted everyone.
By Thursday night the virus was delivering its power-packed payload. It attached itself to his cells and was replicating at will. The x-ray showed his left lung was badly impacted and had lost 20 percent of its function.
He was placed under the care of Dr. Lucas Vivas and his team. He was too sick to find solace in any of their words of encouragement and couldn’t even summon up those famous words by Winston Churchill: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”
He didn’t want to keep going. He wanted to take a pill and get a prescription and be told that everything was going to be okay and he could go home. But the COVID-19 floor was his sanctuary/torture chamber for the next three days.
The Thursday-Friday-Saturday stretch was brutal, and that’s when he thought he would die. The virus was in open conflict with his immune system, and each day went by in dizzying repetition: he was given bags of fluids through an IV; he received 15 litres of oxygen, then it was upped to 20. He was moved from a crowded room to a private one. He still remembers entering the COVID-19 sector and being placed beside an elderly couple who were in an awful state, battling to breathe. They made horrible gurgling sounds like they were being water boarded, Carr said. To fight the disease, their lungs were filling with fluids, mucus, which closed off all air passages, and this had to be suctioned away. Carr said if he lives to be a hundred, he’ll never forget that awful gurgling sound, or the scene in the busy ward, which seemed like a M*A*S*H unit.
Patients say the only taste they recall is all chemical, an acidic stew of medicines and the body's own agents swimming in the blood.
He can’t believe how fearful he was, or the constant battle being waged on his behalf by caregivers. They stabilized his blood and oxygen; four to five times an hour they checked his vital signs; he felt “like a pin-cushion.”
They worked to keep his blood volume up so his body could recruit new fighters. He was in and out of consciousness. He remembers the yellow 3M Type 95 mask he had to wear and its filtration system that kept him sealed off so others wouldn’t get what he got – and all the bad stuff now spilling out of his lungs.
His body and the virus did battle for three days. The words “desperately ill” don’t quite cut it when describing the agony he was living through. “It was like the flu on steroids,” he said, but kept adding the word “filthy” to conjure up a darker image. Every cell in his body seemed to be saying one thing: breathe.
He was under constant scrutiny and Dr. Vivas, and the nurses made him as comfortable as possible. He quickly learned how the COVID-19 floor operated: anyone who had to don a yellow 3M mask was in deep trouble; and those in single rooms were in more peril than those in shared ones.
Because there was no cure, both patients and caregivers were in essence flying blindly through this, each doing what they could to cope. Carr knew enough from seeing the images and hearing the commentary on TV that if he was to be put into ICU, or attached to a ventilator, his chances of survival would lower considerably. He was terrified of the prospect.
Finally, on Sunday morning, April 15th, a date that will be sealed in his mind forever, he awoke without struggling; he could breathe without pain.
That feeling of drowning in your own mucus, on your own fluids released to actually help, reaching into the deepest recess of your body for a tiny gulp of air and feeling sharp stabbing pain while the entire inside constricts to nothing trying to push out even a drop of breath – was gone. The sense of his body closing off after each enormous effort to draw one single inch of oxygen was lifting. Something he had done billions of times since his first gasp for air when he was born, could again be done without fighting a war each breath. He didn’t choke when he took a sip of water. Breathing would return to an unnoticed act. His struggle was over.
Somehow, his body had eked out a victory – unlike thousands of others in hospitals across the planet.
Carr was moved from a single to a shared room. A friend picked him up the next day and drove him home. He could barely walk or talk and was still emotionally and physically drained. But breath by blessed breath, he was rallying. A feeling of bliss had settled over him. When he got home, he summoned the strength to post his initial Facebook message. It was tear-filled, and he looked like a man haunted by this out-of-body experience.
He always thought he was too big and too tough to get sick. He had to face this toughest of foes and he survived – but just barely. He expressed his thanks to those who passed along their best wishes, and he couldn’t say enough about the incredible work done by the Brampton Civic COVID-19 team.
When Carr left the hospital, he was diminished but euphoric. He felt like he had just played the most important board game of his life and fell on the get-out-of-jail square.
Was he scared by the experience?
Stiff with it.
Did he think he might die?
Yes, for three straight days.
Does he feel lucky now?
As if he’d been dealt a straight flush in a high-stakes game of poker.
David Carr lost 31 pounds in his eight-day battle with COVID-19. When he entered Brampton Civic he was 290; he now checks in at a svelte 245, since cutting off even more weight.
The feeling of aloneness that filled him with dread is something he will probably never shake. But his close brush with death left him with some positive takeaways:
• surviving has given him a second chance at life;
• Canada’s universal healthcare system is the best in the world;
• he has a new-found admiration for the incredible professionalism and empathy of our doctors and nurses;
• he can’t wait to give blood so it can be separated from the plasma and the antibodies might help others fight off this awful disease;
• anyone with the temerity/stupidity to call this disease a simple flu is a danger to themselves and society and is simply fooling themselves; and
• those seeking “liberty” from the restrictions of social distancing, or think our economy should get back to full functioning, should be forced to listen to those gurgling sounds in the COVID-19 ward, or watch a distressed patient in the final stages of this awful illness.
Carr feels life has been re-gifted to him. He’s okay with the fact he might miss a ton of work, or his part-time gig as Canadian rep for Lifeline Race Gear will get shunted aside for the time being. The 2020 Hydroplane Racing League has been cancelled because of the pandemic, and he might have to wait until next year to attend races in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, or Valleyfield, Quebec. He’ll miss being with the friends he likes to have a couple of beers with at a local bar on George St. in the downtown core.
He thinks the strength of his body might have saved him, but he doesn’t really know why he lived and others died.
Maybe he was touched by the magic hand of chance?
Carr isn’t religious, so processing how he got the disease and why he didn’t make the COVID-19 fatality list is beyond his scope of knowing.
Scientists remain puzzled too. Why do some get light symptoms, while others are forced to the cliff’s edge, or get put in a body bag to be stacked in a refrigerated truck?
What we do know is that the illness can turn a mountain of a man into a molehill in a couple of days.
William Osler staff (the system that runs Brampton Civic Hospital) will forever be in Dave Carr's thoughts
We’ve always known some people die alone, usually those on the fringes of society and often those who have become mentally incapacitated. They don’t have the consolation of a family member to offer them hope or solace or sometimes their minds have already gone into self-isolation.
Others die in traffic accidents.
Or on a battlefield.
Eleanor Rigby died in a church and was buried along with her name.
Imagine if nobody came?
That seems to be the biggest fear of those forced into a hospital ward by the coronavirus.
That’s why David Carr got so panicky as he lay on his bed with oxygen being pumped into his body, his body turned into a plaything for the virus.
I didn’t want to die alone, he told The Pointer.
He just wanted a chance to say goodbye to his sister, friends, and work mates.
Maybe the lesson learned isn’t how we die, but how we live – and what we do with our lives?
Dave Carr was given a second chance at it, and vows to make the best of what time he has left.
He will sing the praises of social distancing and gladly don another mask, and he’ll tell anyone who will listen that our frontline workers and healthcare system makes Canada a model to the world.
He’s never been more proud to call this country his home.
He can’t wait to get back to 100 percent so he can give blood that might help others fight this most heinous of diseases.
And to all those skeptics who think COVID-19 is a hoax, or can be fixed by taking in sunlight or drinking disinfectant, he’ll generously sit you down and tell you his story – a most cautionary of tales.
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