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'Don't give into it,' says recovering COVID-19 patient

ASHLAND — At one point in his COVID-19 treatment, Duane Ray, 66, was told his chances of survival hovered between 2% and 4%, at best.

From the beginning, as medical professionals handed down one bleak diagnosis after another, Ray made clear he didn’t go to the hospital to die. He went to get better.

“Don’t give into it, just keep fighting it,” Ray said Monday from his recovery room. “It is real, and it will drag you down if you let it.”

The majority of Providence Medford Medical Center nursing staff got on board with his optimism — others resigned to the likelihood that Ray was one of many COVID-19 patients who they likely wouldn’t see again after a few days, he said.

On Tuesday, the state reported 1,314 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 36 more fatalities, bringing state totals to 87,082 cases with 1,080 deaths. A total of 553 people were hospitalized with the virus Tuesday, and 127 were in intensive care.

Bit by bit, the exhaustion, labored breathing, isolation and low likelihood of improvement took its toll on Ray’s positivity, but his mission to survive never faltered, he said.

Ray’s fiancee, Michelle Garcia, 54, watched his treatment unfold from afar some days and from his bedside on others, depending on visitation protocols. At the moments it seemed Ray’s condition wouldn’t improve, she called on family and friends for prayer.

The couple both contracted the virus after the Almeda fire, when evacuations brought Garcia’s daughter, her roommate and children into their home. The roommate was a manager at the McDonald’s restaurant in south Medford, where the Oregon Health Authority reported a workplace outbreak of 21 cases in early October, traced back to Sept. 6.

At the time, the roommate showed no symptoms and the outbreak hadn’t been reported. When subtle symptoms started to arise, it seemed attributable to the hazardous smoke in the air. Within five days, Garcia, Ray and a 7-year-old granddaughter tested positive for COVID-19.

Garcia’s symptoms mimicked a bad flu — a surprising outcome given the difference in their health profiles, she said. Today, she can’t walk as far without needing a break and still feels a tug when she takes a deep breath.

“I have Type II diabetes. I have asthma. Duane had nothing except his age going against him,” Garcia said.

For Ray, most of the past three months is a blur. He remembers anxiety, loneliness and the challenge of simply breathing. Garcia described the time as an “emotional rollercoaster.”

“There wasn’t a lot of pain otherwise because I was so loaded up on stuff that I just laid there like a trout on a beach,” Ray said.

He spent the first week of treatment in a room with no windows. The one-windowed second room was an improvement. Other COVID-19 patients came and went. After 35 days on high-flow oxygen in the intensive care unit, just before departing for specialty care in Portland, his oxygen levels dropped.

“We were told he had to be intubated or go to comfort care to die,” Garcia said. “He almost chose comfort care because he wanted to see us so badly.”

A blood infection, fungal infection and kidney failure complicated his treatment further, and he began dialysis. Doctors and nurses rotated weekly, some with differing opinions about his condition and course of treatment.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, some adults infected with COVID-19 who did not have underlying health conditions have experienced sudden loss of kidney function, though nurses said the blood infection also could have caused the damage, Garcia recalled.

Meanwhile, Garcia sat, ate and slept at his bedside for a week, washing her hair in the room’s bathroom sink. Garcia assumes she was allowed to stay because she had already lived through the virus and the nurses didn’t want Ray to die alone. Once her fiance stabilized enough, she was asked to leave again.

“I had to adjust to life without him for 35 days, and all we could do was talk on the phone,” Garcia said. “You want to be with somebody, you want to love them and you want to touch them and you want to hug them — I wanted to be there for him. For me, it was the hardest thing I ever did just not being able to do anything.”

After he tested negative for COVID-19, doctors watched for any lingering active infection in Ray’s lungs. Another 10 days passed, as Ray breathed through a ventilator in a fully sedated state.

Coming out of a sedation, he wasn’t certain if he was dead or alive.

Ray didn’t recognize his fiancee — at one point mistaking her for an aunt, and the hospital room for his cousin’s house in New Mexico.

“I went home that night and cried,” Garcia said. “I thought, oh, my gosh, he has forgotten me.”

Still, Garcia promised herself his miracle would come. The human body takes time to heal.

Eventually, Garcia could orient Ray to where they were and who she was. Yet on some days, his delirium had him convinced he could get out of bed and leave.

Thinking back on the times he woke up disoriented, Ray said, “It was very disconcerting to know that there’s something going on, but I have no clue what’s going on.”

Many people hospitalized with COVID-19 develop delirium, influenced by ICU environments and medications used for sedation, according to the article “COVID-19: ICU delirium management during SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Critical Care.

“In addition to the neurobiology of COVID-19 ... this pandemic has created circumstances of extreme isolation and distancing from human contact whenever possible, including loved ones, plus the inability to freely ambulate, which essentially create a ‘delirium factory’ that must be explicitly addressed to maximize human dignity and respect during care,” according to the article.

By the 19th day on ventilation, Ray was deemed COVID-free by an infectious disease specialist at Providence. By Day 55 in the ICU, he was extubated and breathing independently. The next week was a course on talking, eating and swallowing. Nurses dubbed Ray the “miracle man.”

Garcia remembers watching hospital staff line the hallway and applaud as he came out of the ICU, with the “Rocky” theme song playing in the background — courtesy of a sleeping pill, Ray doesn’t remember a thing, including the Mercy Flights ride to Portland.

Once transferred to Vibra Specialty Hospital of Portland for therapy, doctors estimated another two months would pass before Ray might be able to leave. The second week in December, the couple left hospital rooms, ventilators and intubation tubes behind and headed for their Medford home.

Ray remains on blood thinners to manage blood clots in the lungs, heart medication and a small amount of oxygen, which may be part of the rest of his life. Still, he looks forward to seeing his children, being home with his fiancee and continuing some remodeling on their house.

“He still has a long recovery, but he is up for the fight and will win,” Garcia said.

Ray said Monday he is astonished by how differently each person’s body reacts to the virus — some get by with a headache or basic flu symptoms, whereas a patient across the hall from him in Portland has been unresponsive for more than a week. Ray said he is not fully healed and may never be, but for now he is grateful to be going home.

Garcia raised $1,740 on Facebook to help with the cost of staying in Portland and plans to start a GoFundMe page to cover the medical bills they expect to see piled up when they get home, for whatever isn’t covered by the state and Medicaid.

She pleads with friends to wear their masks, wash hands, maintain physical distance and allow this one holiday season to pass without getting together in large groups.

“I just don’t want to see anyone else go through what we’ve gone through,” Garcia said.

The couple has set strict guidelines for visiting family members, and the holidays for them will be a celebration for two.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Courtesy photoAt one point in his COVID-19 treatment, Duane Ray, 66, was told his chances of survival hovered between 2% and 4%, at best.