Lessons Learned From the Edge of Life

I can’t quite figure out what just happened, but I am getting there.

I nearly died from coronavirus pneumonia.

My wife, our two sons, their girlfriends and I all met in San Diego for a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend. While there all six of us got sick, but only my wife Shelly and I had symptoms that eventually turned severe. It began as the sniffles. Shelly thought that it may have been a reaction to mold, as the bathroom seemed to have some mold in it.

On Sunday, while driving home Shelly and I both started feeling horrible. We stopped to eat in Yuma. I could barely eat. But I’m tough. I didn’t worry about it, as I’d be alright. But as the week progressed, my symptoms also progressed.

By Thursday I had the worst case of diarrhea I ever had. I struggled to drive to a coronavirus test sight. I pulled up at 10:57 AM. They told me they closed at 11 AM and to hurry as they handed me a cup with a straw in it. They told me to spit in the straw. Simple instructions I thought. But when I went to spit, I had none.

For the next five minutes I scrapped together all the saliva I possible could.

A gentleman then said, “We’re closing now, please give me your cup”.

Saliva barely registered on the bottom of it.

“This tiny amount may be enough, we’ll see. You’ll get results texted to you tonight.”

A text came through twelve hours later. I tested positive.

I barely slept as multiple times an hour I was hurrying to the bathroom. It was the worst flu like symptoms I could ever remember.

But the next morning as I got up from bed, I struggled to catch my breath. This was odd, I thought. But I honestly didn’t put much more thought into it. I had work to do and I needed to get to it.

It just so happened that I got a text from someone I worked with. Dom was my branch manager, but had also become a friend. The text wasn’t work related, it was a continuation of our discussion of our favorite TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. I mentioned to Dom that I had just tested positive. He had just recovered from the virus and had some complications with it.

“How’s your breathing?”

“I’m actually struggling to breathe,” I responded.

“What’s your oxygen level?” he asked.

“I have no idea what that even means,” I responded.

He said he’d get an oxygen pulse meter to my house quickly. Within 15 minutes one was dropped at my door by Lyndi, a teammate that lived a couple miles from me.

Shelly grabbed it from the doormat and we promptly figured out how to operate it. The result was a 93 pulse rate and a 73% oxygen level.

Neither of us had any idea what that meant. I texted Dom that my oxygen was at 73. He said that wasn’t possible. I sent a picture proving it. He immediately called and with much animation in his voice, he said to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

I still didn’t understand the magnitude of what a 73% oxygen level meant. Besides, I still had some work to finish. It was the final day of open enrollment for an employment benefit I wanted to take part in. The email instructions were vague, so I called the support line of the financial services company that was handling the benefit.

I struggled to talk through grasping for breaths while completing the open enrollment on the phone with a nice, patient lady in Florida. It took us at least thirty minutes to get all set up. When finished I laughed and told the lady I was now heading to the hospital.

I had no clue of the seriousness or urgency to the situation. But by this point I was struggling enough that I allowed Shelly to drive, which was very rare.

We stopped at the urgent care near our house. I went inside and fought to get the words out that I was struggling to breathe. The lady at the counter immediately said,

“We can’t help, but get to the hospital NOW!”

Getting back to the car, Shelly made a split second decision and started driving to a nearby small hospital with an emergency room. This facility had opened in our town within the last year. It was five miles away, which was the same approximate distance of two large hospitals in neighboring towns. We both had a gut feeling that this smaller facility would give me the quick attention that I needed. A decision as simple as this may have saved my life.

Entering the door, I was immediately greeted by a friendly lady that told me not to worry about talking. Within seconds, a nurse placed another oxygen meter on my finger. It also said 73.

“Come with us,” the nurse said.

“What about these people waiting?” I laughed.

“At a 73 oxygen, you get to the front of the line.”

Shelly hadn’t even parked the car yet, and I already had oxygen placed over my nose to help me breathe. From here several nurses and a doctor kept rotating into my room, asking the same general questions about my health.

I asked the doctor what he thought about my situation.

He proceeded to tell me that I had pneumonia connected to the coronavirus. That I was fortunate to come in when I did, because without the aid of supplemental oxygen, it wouldn’t have taken me very long to suffocate to death. He described how the upcoming days would be crucial in determining my longer term prognosis.

That’s when the seriousness of my situation started to become clear to me. Up until then I thought that I would get treated with some medicine and be good to go home within a few hours.

I didn’t want to alarm Shelly or the rest of my family with the severity of my situation. These were strange times, as Shelly couldn’t be in the room with me due to coronavirus protocols. So the conversations with the doctor and nurses were just between me and them.

Shelly called me from the waiting room. I told her I would most likely be in overnight and asked her to go home and grab a few items for me. I kept thinking about my laptop computer, as I had work that needed to get done.

Shelly brought those items to me and then went home. I was worried about her, as she was also sick from the virus. But my biggest concern was the fact that she has a traumatic brain injury from a freak accident nine years ago, so I have been her caregiver ever since. There’s many things that she no longer can do on her own, so my mind was focused on getting well quickly so I could get back home and take care of her.

That evening reality became clearer as I struggled with all of my might to breathe. That’s when I met Dr Kelli.

Dr Kelli was a personable, caring type provider that I hit it off with right away. She explained that I was very sick. That I needed more supplemental oxygen than most people that she sees. Apparently my type 2 diabetes had added to my issues. She explained that I needed to put my focus on following their instructions and fighting hard not to give up. She needed me to stay positive.

As I struggled with my breath, I managed to tell her a little about myself. I gave her a quick synopsis of what I had been through in my life. Losing my fiancé at a young age. Struggling for years and then falling in love and marrying a trusted and valued friend, which alienated people close to us. Climbing to the top of the grocery world, only to lose it all due to my hard ass ways. With that, millions of dollars were lost. Then rising in the mortgage business, only to lose everything in the crash. I proceeded to explain that things got so bad I secretly drove a cab overnight through the rough streets of Phoenix. This changed me into a more empathetic human. For work, we left Phoenix for Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The reinvented me became the popular local grocer and I created a radio show with my son. Then life came crashing down again with Shelly’s brain injury.

I told Dr Kelli that I began writing about my journey and that it was helping me and others. My story is a story of resilience, and this is just another chapter in it. I explained that I would be positive, patient and fearless. And that I would not allow any negativity to enter these four walls. Dr Kelli beamed with a wide smile and said, “I love this! You do have the attitude needed to beat this.”

By over hearing conversations and watching expressions, it didn’t take long for me to understand that I was in a complete fight for my life. But I wouldn’t discuss that with anyone, as that was the negativity I was avoiding. Besides, I did not want Shelly or Dylan and Taylor to worry more than they already were.

To keep from being put on a ventilator, I was put on the most high-powered high-flow oxygen machine at 60 liters per minute. I could not stand up, nor roll over without assistance. Every breath felt like I was digging deep to breathe after a mile sprint. Often times I likened it to what drowning must feel like.

I could have easily gotten scared or negative. But what was I scared of? I had lived an amazing life full of enough ups and downs to cover several lives. If my life was about to end, so be it. It had been a good life. My only concern was that I didn’t want to leave my family to deal with life without me. I also recognized that I had a lot more life to live with many people to help and more of a positive impact to be made. So I told myself that I had a lot to live for and that my fight could be a positive example for other people facing a similar fight.

From that point forward my focus was to be patient and to preach positivity. I knew there would be people helped and inspired as well as it being my driver for moving forward with purpose.

Music has always been a tremendous part of my being. I gather such clarity and hope from it. On my first night at the hospital I listened to a podcast. Halfway through I realized that I didn’t need that kind of noise from the outside. I turned it off and turned on The Smiths through Spotify. I listened to their entire catalog of songs over the next several hours. I was calm, confident, and focused. I realized to get to the other side of this I needed music by my side twenty-four hours a day.

I started calling my hospital room the “Happy House” after the upbeat song by goth legends Siouxsie and The Banshees. I played that song often and loudly, drawing much inspiration and positivity from this and so many other songs.

That same day I reached out on social media with a short, positive but serious account of what I going through. From that moment forward I began openly sharing the roller coaster of my journey.

The following night my football team, the Arizona Cardinals, were on Monday Night Football. They had the momentum throughout the season to make a run deep into the playoffs. I was excited to see them on the television. I told my nurse that I would only turn off the music and turn on the TV when the Cardinals were playing. The game was awful, as the Cardinals were embarrassed by the Rams. I turned the TV off, cleared my mind of the negativity of the game and I vowed never to turn the TV on again while hospitalized. It truly would be music 24/7.

This focus on positivity and music began serving me well. I was inspiring the medical staff and they were inspiring me. My positive focus centered on kindness and appreciation towards the medical team. This positive energy began feeding off itself; creating a momentum of hope that’s hard to describe.

I was an extremely sick man. But I focused my energy on the small improvements daily. Ever so slight, these improvements became a challenge within myself. The staff was highly encouraged to be able to gently lower my high flow oxygen level sooner than expected.

Our youngest son Taylor and his girlfriend Michelle took time off of work to come home to help take care of Shelly. Taylor had moved to California the previous year. The timing of their help was vital for Shelly. I am so grateful they were able to get here when they did.

Taylor dropped off a container of dates and energy bars to the front desk. It was five days in and so far the most substantial food I had eaten was Sugar Free Jello. It was good to be able to eat something familiar, healthy and of substance. After being hospitalized for a full week, I was able to order solid food from the hospital kitchen. Chicken nuggets and chicken noodle soup sounded good, and it was great to muster the endurance to eat a close to normal meal. It took nearly an hour to finish eating, as it took so much more strength than what I currently had. But most importantly it was a positive milestone to draw much gratitude from. The two chefs were so kind to me. My interactions where I fought hard to speak through the hospital phone with Sherri and Daniel in the kitchen became a highlight of each day.

That same day I ate my first meal, Taylor and Michelle brought some more healthy snacks. Taylor called me on my cell phone and said that he wanted to find my window. I was not much help, as I had no perception of where my room was. At that point, I didn’t even realize my room was on the first and only floor of the tiny eight bed hospital. Within a few minutes they found my window.

The sight of the two of them smiling made my day and brought me to tears.

From there the window visits began. Friends and family found my window on what became a daily basis. It brought us all hope and a smile, as I posted each photo to social media.

My Jackson Hole, Wyoming friends took the window visit a step further as they went to St John’s Hospital in Jackson and had a picture taken of them bundled up on the outside through a hospital window. I was crying multiple times daily, but the sight of this brought me deeper tears than any time yet.

I was continual blown away by the kindness towards me that I was seeing near and far. People that I least expected to grow close to were closely bonding with me. From Jack, my local accident attorney to Craig, a friend that I had limited contact with since the 1980’s. These are a couple of examples of deep friendships cemented, but there are many more examples such as these.

Often there’s not an understanding of how much of an impact we’ve have made on people until we are gone from this world. But I was blessed to see that countless people from all times and aspects of my life cared. This was a huge moment of clarity and inspiration for me.

In those early days I began having vividly real conversations with deceased family and those close to me that had died, as well as a conversation with God. The talks were specific and incredibly deep. Where’d this come from? Delusions? Hallucinations? Or near death experience? Whatever it was, these conversations helped me a lot. I gained clarity and perspective that added to my already deeper understanding of life. It was an incredible tool to be equipped with in my fight for life and it will be an incredible tool I will find energy and wisdom from for the rest of my life. I am still processing and understanding much of this, but I truly look forward to diving deeper into this in the next book that I write.

The music was getting louder and more diverse. What began as a focused dive into my musical roots was now expanding into bands I had been curious about but never had gotten much into. Sonic Youth was a band that I dove into on my eighth day. By time the day was over I was convinced Sonic Youth would be a band on heavy rotation for the rest of my life; and so far it has been.

Each day I’d write and post about my song of the day. It would be a song that was relatable to my current circumstance. My discussion about the lyrics was too deep for most, but my music friends got it I thrived off of that. It gave me a needed purpose at a time where I needed my mind occupied. I channeled my radio persona from my radio show that I did for five years with my son Dylan, The Hole Enchilada on KHOL 89.1 FM Jackson Hole Community Radio.

This got me through extremely difficult days. I focused on the music rather than the fact that there was sizable worry that I might not make it to the next day. My music friends throughout the world came up huge, by sending me Spotify song playlists that often times were closely allied with my tastes. But I also appreciated the playlists and suggestions from many that were far from my musical wheel house. Because of this, my musical tastes expanded greatly at a time I needed intriguing things to think about. Dylan, my oldest son that shares my passion for music, and his girlfriend Ashley stayed extremely close by sending me so much music and having conversations with mostly music as the subject throughout all hours of the day.

While in the hospital any progress made was recognized. I kept everyone upbeat with fun and humor. This focus went so far in getting me through each day. My overnight nurse, Janet was an absolute saint. We celebrated the smallest steps; an example being one night on my own, I got up and took two steps to the bedside commode. Another night, with walking help from Janet, I was able to take a few steps to the sink and brush my teeth on my own. I focused on the positive of what was accomplished, rather than the reality of how basic, elementary and what a struggle each new task was.

The hospital was such a safe and controlled environment. I was being monitored around the clock. I rarely slept, but when I did, if I rolled over and my oxygen came off, within seconds Janet would be in my room to safely get it back in place. If my oxygen level suddenly plummeted at any hour of the day, a nurse would immediately be there to investigate why.

With my medical team’s tireless effort and my positive determination, I was improving slightly each day. Although I was often reminded that things could quickly and dangerously plummet south. Dr Kelli would often say, “We are not out of the woods yet.”

Not only was I on a lot of oxygen, I was on a lot of drugs. For one stretch in particular, around Christmas, I was on Prednisone. This was to aggressively clear infection in my lungs, but a side effect put me closer towards temporary insanity. I said and posted things at times that didn’t make much sense. Although in my racing mind, it made perfect sense. I knew that I was wearing on many people, but I frankly didn’t care, as it was also a survival tactic for me as I was staying occupied rather than going down the rabbit hole of fear, isolation, negativity and depression. I lost some people with my trip towards insanity during this time, but countless people stayed right there with me and helped pull me through. They say this is not only a virus of the lungs, but also a virus of the brain. These are subjects I look forward to digging deeper into in my next book.

I was surprised on my 16th day of hospitalization when a doctor came into my room and said, we need to talk about discharging you soon. Sure, I had improved and was now on ten liters of oxygen per minute, but who were we kidding? I had a long ways to go.

“Where will I go?” I asked.

“Possibly home,” the doctor said.

This alarmed me as Shelly was still healing from her fight with the virus and I was her caregiver, there’s no way she could be mine. I explained this to the doctor and asked her to please read the article about Shelly’s brain injury.

Later in the day she stopped by, told me she read the article and totally agreed. They’d work on getting me into a rehabilitation facility within a reasonable drive from home, as Shelly could not drive very far due to her brain injury. Being in the positive frame of mind I was in, I took this in stride with a feeling of achievement and excitement. Talking to both Dr Kelli and Nurse Janet, they assured me that I’d be fine and under good, closely monitored care.

Nineteen days into my stay, on December 22, 2021 I was discharged to the care of what is classified as a post acute and rehabilitation facility, which was less than 8 miles from our house. Although I was still fighting hard with every single breath, I had no concern with what was next as I knew I’d turn it into a positive. I was released with cheers and excitement from the hospital staff that I had bonded so well with. I videoed it all and triumphantly posted to social media. But with excitement for change, I had no idea what kind of evening I was in for.

The facility was on an intersection that I regularly drove past. It was old and not appearing to be very well kept. Immediately I felt like I wasn’t receiving enough oxygen, but I struggled to get anyone to look into this. I had just tested negative for the virus, so I could now have visitors. Shelly came by and we both had an uneasy feeling.

Dinner came and it was unbelievably bad. It’s what I imagined prison food to look like. In addition to its poor looking quality it was all carbs and sweets. I told the nurse’s assistant that I was diabetic and needed the diabetic meal. She abruptly told me there was no other option. After pushback she brought me a ham sandwich, a bag of gold fish crackers, a cookie and apple juice. Again, nothing I could eat. I reached for my bag of healthy treats and thankfully was able to eat two Kind protein bars and drink a bottle of Glucerna for dinner.

Later in the evening my roommate started yelling for help. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was in a lot of pain and needed a nurse. I rang my help buzzer, as he had done several minutes earlier. Nobody came. He started yelling for help, I joined in with hollering “nurse!” and “help”. As time went on we yelled louder, as I was struggling with my breath due to what felt like inadequate oxygen and I was now out of water.

To make a long story not as long, it took over an hour to get help. I was horrified after receiving such good care at the hospital. After providing care to my roommate, I was told my oxygen was fine. I asked about my medication and was told it would take a few days to get transferred. Again, I was horrified. Then I looked down and saw a human toe nail on my bed. Already in survival mode, I kicked it up a notch. I knew I needed to get out of this place fast.

Determined not to sleep, I started by calling Vik, my best friend from college who now lived in Switzerland. We talked for a few hours as he kept me calm into the early hours of the morning. I explained to him that I would not sleep, because if I did sleep and lose my oxygen connection, nobody would come to assist and I could die.

I spent the night on the phone with eight different people. This included early rising old grocery industry friends on the east coast as well as our neighbor Robin and Shelly’s best friend, Wendy. I’ll never forget how those people got me through that night. As the night went on I was convinced I needed out of this facility immediately.

The next morning the nurse and nurse’s assistant both connected with me through our shared love of music, reggae in particular. I felt some relief as I realized that if I could get food delivered to me by friends and family daily, I could stay positive and survive this situation. The last thing I wanted was to move somewhere that was too far for Shelly to drive. So I quickly put the halt on moving me someplace else.

What was toughest for me during this time was my concern for Shelly. I tried to lead and be a caregiver from my hospital bed. But most of the time I couldn’t get people to understand what help she needed and I made her extremely uncomfortable with my attention to the subject. Thank goodness for her best friend Wendy. Without her, I am not sure what we would have done.

Every single day I had company, as people were coming from all over town at all hours of the day to see me. Many times they brought food, keeping me from having to eat the awful facility food. Sometimes they came inside to my room. Other times they came to the window, which I had my bed pushed up against. Although the window would only open a few inches, it was enough to feel the breeze and talk to my visitors through.

I spent 34 days in this facility. At first glance, there is not much positive to see here. It felt like the type of place the elderly go to die. But I kept the mood fun and stayed positive with the allies that I made. I used my positivity to have great relationships with the nurses, certified nurse’s assistants, physical therapy staff and my roommates. I stayed positive by focusing on being kind and sharing my story. Early in my stay here I began videotaping short messages of my progress, and my mindset each day. I posted them first thing each morning. It chronicled my improvement as well as my challenges. It was real, it was raw and it provided hope.

I also began videotaping my physical therapy sessions, which began as simply standing up and moved to a walk to the window, then the door and back and then eventually walking to my bathroom. I hadn’t visited the bathroom in my room since the day early in my stay that I tried going in there by myself and my oxygen level dropped to 52% as I approached the sink. It took complete focus and proper breathing to fearlessly get my level up into the 60’s as I walked toward the door. Within minutes I had myself back to 90%. I was told the 50’s was extremely dangerous and could result in brain damage or death. I made sure not to drop that low again, although I often would dip into the 60’s, while my heart rate would skyrocket towards 150. For perspective one of my mountain climbing friends told me that 70% was the equivalent to climbing on Mt Everest.

Eventually I moved to walking from my room to down the hall. Then one day my incredible physical therapists, Tina and Jason, wheeled me outside for a triumphant walk through the grass. I captured the progress daily on video.

I managed to keep myself clean despite not having a shower for 55 days, as I was far from having the strength or breathing ability for such a physically taxing task.

I eventually was released after 34 days in the rehab facility, for a total of 53 days in a hospital bed. I never was alone as I connected daily with so many people that were rooting for me. This connection was a big reason for my survival.

The food never did get better. Shelly visited everyday and brought Greek yogurt they kept in the kitchen refrigerator for me to eat each morning. I continued to aggressively use my leadership skills asking friends, family and Shelly to bring me a meal each day. I’d eat half and then have leftovers stored in the refrigerator for a second meal. I weighed 180 pounds when I was originally admitted to the hospital. I got all the way down to 159 pounds as I lost all of my muscle and struggled for the energy to even chew. I have now built myself back up to 173 pounds.

But my ability to survive in the way that I did doesn’t surprise me, as I had proven to myself what my resilience was all about in years past. But I did have to dig deep and pull the positivity from those prior experiences and stay connected to my friends and family; never allowing myself to feel depressed or alone.

I connected closely with my roommate Glynn. He moved in two weeks or so into my stay at the rehab facility. Up until then, I only had a couple of nights sharing my room. Rather than stressing over the fact that I’d have to turn the music down and possibly deal with television noise from across the room again, I instead looked forward to making a new friend. Fast friends we became. Glynn is a polite older gentleman from the deep southern part of Georgia. Exactly who you would picture as a “southern gentleman”. We became each other’s top cheerleader as we constantly joked while fighting for our life. Our nurses loved coming into our room as we were always positive, having fun and playing music. Glynn loves country music, so we had a blast playing country classics from Patsy Cline to Merle Haggard literally all twenty four hours of the day. I’m blessed to have met Glynn. We have a bond that only the two of us will ever understand. He is still not well, so we’ve gone to visit him twice in the past few weeks at two different health care facilities. I pray for him daily.

The emergence of so many unexpected, caring friends doesn’t surprise me, as with each previous life changing bout with adversity new close friends emerged where least expected. Those that disappeared also aren’t a surprise, as I have seen this take place through every previous major life challenge. As unfortunate as that is, it’s part of life. I will not blame myself nor others for the fact that not everyone is comfortable with such vulnerable, real and raw communication. It’s clear that some won’t be able to let go of their vision of me spiraling towards losing my mind, while others draw inspiration, perspective and hope from that same highly visible fight.

Devin, my very best friend, has continued to reach out to me every single day throughout this saga. The depth of his patience, wisdom and care towards me is unbelievable, as his steady commitment to my well-being has been a constant for over thirty years now.

I am blessed indeed.

New observations and revelations from my experience emerge daily. What is clear thus far is that this strongly reiterated what had already been proven to myself in my story of resilience. It continued telling me that whatever gets thrown my way, I will undoubtedly find a way to the other side. With each new chapter of my life, the clarity of the benefits of a life centered on positivity and gratitude becomes even clearer.

Also becoming evident to me more than ever is that most things are not a very big deal. When there is an issue; I just simply observe, put some thought into it and come up with a solution. It then becomes quickly resolved so I can put it behind me and move on with positivity to the next day.

I’ve now been out of the rehab facility for eight weeks. The first 9 days I went and stayed with our neighbors and good friends, Bill & Gwynn. The kindness of their offer was mind blowing, as I wasn’t quite ready yet to go home to Shelly. Again, she is not able to be my caregiver, so it was perfect to be able to ease into my arrival home. I worked hard, gained strength and eventually made it home, where I quickly mastered the stairs of our two-story home.

The progress has really been encouraging. I’ve worked hard with my home health physical therapist, Austin. He has given me exercises that I work on every day to build strength. I am still easily tired, needing far more sleep than ever. But I am improving every day. I am now almost completely off of supplemental oxygen. But it’s a true balancing act as I work hard, but also try to make sure I don’t overdo it. Somedays I do better with this than others.

My work as a loan officer is thankfully keeping me busy and focused, as I primarily work from the office space I created in my backyard. I also drive to see clients and my realtor partners. I have actually gone into the office a few times and I plan to more often in the upcoming weeks.

I am ever so thankful for the sun! That is something I really missed in my 53 days inside. I cherish everyday spent at home with Shelly and our two pups, Molly and Dino. I still have a ways to go as I tire easily, cough often and still have an issue where I hyperventilate and struggle with my voice. The days start well, as I return to some normalcy, writing early in the morning at my favorite outside table at Sunsational Coffee. Though by evening the fatigue is intense, as is the cough and hyperventilation. But there is progress.

I’m still Shelly’s caregiver. But as much as I didn’t want this to happen, she has also become my caregiver in certain ways. Reality is that can’t do some of the things that I could do before. But the silver lining of this is that we’ve become the clearest picture of teamwork that I have ever seen.

Progress is a beautiful thing as I keep being patient, positive and so grateful to be alive!

4 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From the Edge of Life

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