Infected dad’s six-day ventilator hell
A man who spent almost a week on a ventilator after developing a near-fatal case of COVID-19 says his life will never be the same again.
New York lawyer David Lat, 44, says while he has no doubt the machine saved him, it also left him with serious and lasting damage.
Mr Lat, who has a two-year-old son and edits colourful legal blog Above The Law, says he started feeling sick around four weeks ago. Then the fatigue set in, followed by a fever, chills, body aches and a terrible hacking cough. Most terrifying of all for the childhood asthmatic was a sudden difficulty to breathe.
He went to New York University Langone Hospital exhibiting all the classic signs of COVID-19, the pneumonia caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"They did finally give me a coronavirus test, and it came back positive," Mr Lat said in a Skype interview with Spectrum News NY1.
He was plied with a spectrum of drugs, including the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine, which is controversially being trialled as a possible COVID-19 treatment, but his condition continued to spiral.
"My oxygen levels were dropping and someone, I forget who, came into my room and said: 'We're going to have to put you on a ventilator, on a machine that's going to breathe for you because you can't breathe on your own'." Mr Lat recalled. "So that was terrifying."
With ventilators - along with test kits, masks, and other protective equipment - in desperately short supply in the US, Mr Lat knew the decision to give him a machine was not taken lightly. It was also confirmation of just how sick he was.
"A few days earlier, after my admission to the hospital, my physician father had warned me: 'You better not get put on a ventilator. People don't come back from that'," he wrote in a column about his ordeal for The Washington Post on Friday.
The statistics for ventilated patients with COVID-19 in the US are not encouraging, with a survival rate of only around 50 percent. The figures are worse for New York, where almost 6000 people have died from the disease - including 80 percent of those who ended up on a ventilator.
Research has shown mechanical ventilation can have lasting consequences for brain function in many patients, leading to physical, mental and emotional issues, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"As the nurses prepared me for the intubation, I thought to myself: It's not my time to die," Mr Lat wrote in The Post.
"My husband and I have a two-year-old son. I want to see him graduate from high school, graduate from college. If he gets married or has kids of his own someday, I want to be there. I started praying the Hail Mary, over and over.
Mr Lat said his memory of being intubated is hazy.
"I spent the next six days basically asleep, under sedation, the ventilator serving as my lungs," he said.
"I remember nothing from this period. I have since learned that some patients have nightmares or hallucinations while on ventilators, so I view myself as very fortunate.
"Eventually, my doctors faced a choice: take me off the ventilator and see if I could breathe on my own, or give me a tracheostomy, which would have required an incision into my neck to insert a breathing tube directly into my windpipe."
Luckily, Mr Lat was able to breathe independently. He was finally discharged from hospital five days later.
Not an #AprilFoolsDay Joke: after 17 days at @nyulangone, including 6 days on a ventilator, I’m being discharged! Here’s my final hospital bed selfie. #coronavirus #COVID19 #coronaboy #LatsCovid19Journal pic.twitter.com/RlgDiVg7sU— David Lat (@DavidLat) April 1, 2020
"As a patient whose life was saved by a ventilator, I believe it is an outrage and an embarrassment that a nation as wealthy as ours is even discussing possible ventilator shortages.
"Thankfully the United States has managed to avoid widespread rationing partly due to ventilators being sent from places of low need to places of high need. We need to make sure that every patient who needs a ventilator can get one so that as many of them as possible can survive."
The battle is not over, however. Ten days after his official "recovery", Mr Lat remains in a weakened state with scarred lungs and shortness of breath, unable to travel short distances without the aid of a wheelchair.
"For me, my lungs must rebuild their capacity," he said.
"I experience breathlessness from even mild exertion. I used to run marathons; now I can't walk across a room or up a flight of stairs without getting winded. I can't go around the block for fresh air unless my husband pushes me in a wheelchair.
"When I shower, I can't stand the entire time; I take breaks from standing to sit down on a plastic stool I have placed inside my bathtub.
"Being on the ventilator for almost a week damaged my vocal cords, and now my voice is extremely hoarse. My speech pathologist expressed optimism that the damage is not permanent. Only time will tell.
"I'm not complaining. I am incredibly grateful to be alive. And for that, I have the ventilator to thank."
Originally published as Infected dad's six-day ventilator hell