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COVID-19 survivor on road to recovery

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Steve Snowden does push-ups while working out at a Medford gym.
Months of work help Medford man regain strength

Steve Snowden’s brain came up with a vivid hallucination to explain his suffering while he was deeply sedated and hooked up to a ventilator.

While battling COVID-19 early this year, he spent six days on a ventilator during a 27-day stay at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford.

“I was kidnapped from the hospital and tortured in a room of an abandoned building. I escaped, but they captured me again and tortured me some more. The Grants Pass police SWAT team rescued me, and I was life-flighted to the Medford hospital,” he said.

Snowden said the hallucination was full of detail and color.

Hospitalized back in January and February, he remembers coming back to consciousness and arguing with his doctor, nurses and wife when they didn’t believe his kidnapping and torture story.

“It still feels real to me even now,” he said.

Snowden isn’t the only COVID-19 survivor to suffer hallucinations of being tortured.

Regardless of why they’re in the hospital, seriously ill patients can become delirious and suffer nightmarish visions. The condition has a number of names, including intensive care unit psychosis.

The fear from the hallucination is only one of the mental and physical problems Snowden has been working to overcome as he regains his strength and abilities.

Today, he’s back to doing push-ups, working out on an elliptical machine and lifting 90% of the weight he could do before falling ill.

But his heart is still at 25% of its pre-COVID-19 capacity. Snowden and his cardiologist believe his heart will eventually improve.

With Rogue Valley hospitals struggling with a surge of COVID-19 patients, the survivors will join the growing ranks of people dealing with the after-effects of the illness.

Some will get better quickly, others will spend weeks, months or years on their recoveries, and some will never fully regain their past abilities, doctors say.

Now in his eighth month of recovery, Snowden said people can improve their outcomes, but it takes hard work.

“My message is you can overcome it one day at a time. It can be very discouraging when you have setbacks. But if you do the work and you do it regularly, improvement will come,” he said.

Snowden’s descent into severe COVID-19 started benignly enough. His wife caught the virus but experienced such mild symptoms she thought she had the post-Christmas blues. She was better in three days.

Snowden caught the virus and had a telehealth visit with his doctor in early January. Noticing Snowden’s rapid breathing, the doctor advised him to get tested for COVID-19.

“It didn’t seem serious at first. I can see why people die at home. It’s easy to confuse it with a lesser infection,” said Snowden, who’s suffered bouts of sinus infections, bronchitis and pneumonia during his lifetime.

He was admitted to RRMC on Friday, Jan. 8, and appeared to be improving over the weekend. His condition took a sudden turn for the worse Monday.

Snowden had given instructions that he didn’t want to be hooked up to life-support machines, including a ventilator.

“My doctor said, ‘It may come to that point,’” Snowden recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t want to. A high percentage of people die.’ He said, ‘It may be your only option.’”

Snowden agreed to be sedated and go on a ventilator. His wife was only able to look at him in his hospital bed through glass.

“They wake you up occasionally while you’re on a ventilator to check and see if you’re still responsive and to stimulate your senses. I’m very claustrophobic. One time I immediately grabbed at the mask and ripped it off and broke it, so they had to give me a paralytic,” he said, referring to a medication that temporarily paralyzes people so they can’t move.

Snowden’s time in the hospital was a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows for everyone hoping for his recovery.

“It was touch-and-go. They really didn’t think I would make it. At one point, they said I was a fighter and the doctors said I would be a success story. Then there would be reversals,” Snowden said.

He said he is grateful to the doctors, nurses and aides for their heroic efforts to care for him and others in the hospital.

Snowden pulled through — but was shocked to discover how COVID-19 had ravaged his body.

He had no strength or muscle in his left arm, and he could barely lift it 30 degrees to the front and side. Lifting his arm above his head was out of the question.

“I had lost the use of my left arm and I didn’t know for how long. Would I be able to use it again in six to 12 months — or never? There was frustration,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m strong. I work out regularly and I tried to keep myself in good shape.’”

Once a fit, 174-pound, 69-year-old man, Snowden said he was reduced to a 146-pound weakling.

Just getting out of his hospital bed to use the bedside commode caused his heart rate to skyrocket and his oxygen levels to drop.

“I was a shadow of my former self. It was discouraging and daunting,” he said.

Snowden was released from the hospital Feb. 3. There were no beds available in local nursing and rehabilitation centers, so he chose to recuperate at home with biweekly visits from home health aides.

“I was using a walker for six weeks after the hospital. I couldn’t stand up to shave or shower,” he said.

But Snowden was determined. He kept working out in whatever way he could five days a week.

In April, his cardiologist cleared him to return to working out at the gym.

“He said, ‘Your recovery is amazing. We haven’t seen this very often,’” Snowden said.

Snowden’s times on the elliptical machine went from almost 10-minute miles to 7-minute miles. He’s regained muscle and now weighs 180 pounds.

Snowden said he wants COVID-19 survivors to maintain hope. He knows what they’re going through.

“Days of resolution can suddenly turn to despair when you are in a severely weakened state and the road ahead looks so incredibly forbidding. You have no real reason to believe your efforts will ever pay off,” he said.

With his recovery underway, Snowden got vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as he was medically cleared to do so. He got his first shot in May and the second in June. His wife got vaccinated, too.

Back in the winter when they caught the COVID-19 virus, they weren’t yet eligible for vaccination.

Snowden said he probably wouldn’t have gotten the vaccine back then even if he could have.

“I’m a proponent of vaccination now. But most of last year, I was unsure whether I would get vaccinated. I was reading all the scary, negative things out there about the vaccines,” he said.

Snowden said he hears people say that it’s better to catch the virus and build up immunity the natural way, rather than through a vaccination.

He’s built up his immunity from both catching the virus and getting vaccinated. The vaccination was far easier.

“Having had it, I don’t want to go through it again,” he said of his battle with COVID-19.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.