On death's door: A Tallahassee man's journey through long-haul COVID-19 symptoms
"Some days I wake up and just can't," Lee Thurmond says
Lee Thurmond can't speak for more than a few minutes before he feels like his throat will permanently close.
A walk to the mailbox is a tiring trek, requiring as much as a 40-minute rest afterward.
Sometimes his voice is deep and bellowing. Other days it can be as weak as rustling leaves.
He has trouble sleeping and experiences daily, debilitating headaches.
"I am run down all the time," said Thurmond, the longtime owner of Lake Ella's Watch, Clock, Jewelry Repair. "I haven't felt like myself for more than a year."
He is in what American Medical Association researchers estimate to be 10% of COVID-19 patients, or "long-haulers," who experience a hodgepodge of symptoms well after the typical course of the virus.
And he has been fighting these symptoms since he initially contracted COVID-19 last July.
The virus hospitalized Thurmond, who had no preexisting conditions, for 76 days before he entered a rehabilitation program that lasted nearly 30 days, he said.
But even today's grueling symptoms are "a huge improvement" from the 69-year-old's experience in the months following his initial infection.
While in the hospital, he developed double pneumonia and later sepsis, a life-threatening condition in which the body damages itself while responding to an infection.
"I thought I was going to die," Thurmond said. "I think the doctors thought I wasn't going to make it, too."
The plight of COVID long-haulers
A study by FAIR Health of 1.9 million COVID-19 patient's medical records found 23.2% sought treatment for COVID-19 related symptoms a month or more after diagnosis.
Along with physical symptoms like difficulty breathing and brain fog, the study also reported negative mental health effects like anxiety and depression.
"The mental stuff can be just as bad as the physical stuff," Thurmond said. "When you're in a hospital just staring at a ceiling, it can be easy to spiral."
Local COVID-19 stories:Leon County Commissioner Brian Welch's 'breakthrough' COVID infection a cautionary tale
Somewhere between 30-40% of those who get the COVID-19 vaccine have reported improvements to their long-haul symptoms, according to Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, writing in a recent academic journal.
This is possible, she said, because the vaccine helps people's immune systems fight off residual virus lingering in their bodies. Thurmond received two shots of the Moderna vaccine in early 2021 — after he got sick.
As of July 1, about 38% of Leon County residents were fully vaccinated, according to the Florida Department of Health in Leon County. Furthermore, Leon County recently had a 63.2% increase in reported COVID-19 cases. Local hospitals saw a dramatic increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations as well.
Thurmond woke up his wife Edwina on the morning of July 26, 2020 with a 103-degree fever.
"You're burning up," she said to him.
The two went to the Capital Circle Home Depot for COVID-19 tests where they came upon a long line under the hot sun. Thurmond, growing weaker, walked over to a chair shaded by a large tree in the parking lot.
When he was next in the queue, he lost all control when standing up and fell to the grass below.
Nearby doctors hurried over to Thurmond before Edwina drove him to Capital Regional Hospital where he was taken directly to the intensive care unit.
'The hardest days of my life'
Including oxygen and blood transfusions, Thurmond received "all the treatment Capital Regional could muster," he said.
"You could be the poster child for COVID lung disease," Lee remembered a doctor telling him.
He lost 72 pounds and 90% of his hair. One of the worst symptoms, Lee said, were his daily nightmares.
"I get flashes of people screaming, crying and yelling out for help because they couldn't breathe in the hospital," he said. "The speaker going off 'code blue, code blue' and I'm just scared. I'm scared to die but at that moment I'm scared the doctors will come into my room."
While Lee was being treated, Edwina was in an empty house suffering from the virus as well. But "it was nothing compared to what Lee was going through," she said.
The toughest part for Edwina was the separation.
"It was so lonely because he's my soulmate and my best friend," she said. "They were the hardest days of my life. I would cry all day for him because he was up there suffering all alone... In some times, I thought he'd never come home."
The two, who met at 17 and were married at 19, did not see each other for over two months.
'Get her to the hospital now'
In December, Lee's sister Patricia White, 78, and her family tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, Lee was in the midst of recovery, completing daily breathing exercises and gaining weight.
On December 7, his niece called to check in. Lee asked them all to measure their blood, oxygen level using a pulse oximeter.
Normal range is between 95% and 100% — Lee's sister was recorded at 76%.
"You need to get her to the hospital now," Lee remembered saying.
After one night in a Tampa hospital, she died.
White was the mother of three children. "That was a big blow," Lee said. "It happened so fast."
Lee has owned his shop on Lake Ella, where he can be found fixing valuables and maintaining an enormous collection of Florida State University memorabilia, for over 40 years.
While he was in the hospital and rehab, the store was closed but the idea of shutting its doors permanently was never an option.
"I don't think he'd consider closing the shop," Edwina said. "He loves being there and is so good at what he does."
Lee started working again in May but his schedule fluctuates depending on his health, which causes him to sometimes leave early or not open the store at all.
"Some days I wake up and just can't," he said.
He now seeks treatment at the Mayo Clinic's Jacksonville campus in an attempt to rid himself of the remaining symptoms.
"I just hope I can be active and do things again," he said. "But I have come a long way."
Contact Christopher Cann at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @ChrisCannFL on Twitter.
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