While I was under intubation, in my mind,I went on a 10-day COVID-19 adventure. I was in three different states, three different countries, and at times I could walk and talk.
In reality, I never left Frederick Memorial Hospital’s ICU, confined to a bed on my stomach.
The hallucinations I had while in a medically-induced coma were unreal and vivid. When I dream normally, I only remember the very bad ones and barely at all. But this was different. I can remember color, smell – even my internal thoughts.
I remember being on a military plane that was making a brief visit to some lush island country in southeast Asia. It was something political, as the nation’s president was there, and I was there for some publicity reason. I got a haircut and ate steak, though I only remember the feel of the haircut and taste of the meat, but I don’t remember seeing anything. I really wish that haircut was real right about now.
I guess after that flight I ended up in some Asian country – possibly South Korea – where I was receiving treatment. Some woman crept into my room, wheeled me to another part of the hospital, stole my medication, and left me to suffer. I was found by other nurses, one of whom called the police while the other held my hand (turns out, in reality, there was a nurse who was holding my hand at one point to see if I was present).
I tried to base all of my hallucinations in reality. For parts of my trip, I remember being on my stomach, and that was true: The doctors flipped me over to help my lungs battle the pneumonia. But one of my more dark dreams came rather unexpectedly.
At one point I was in a hospital in Georgia, and I remember a nurse being upset about getting into legal trouble for having to tell me something. She walked in with a doctor and handed me a Do Not Resuscitate form. Apparently I took a turn for the worse, and I’m not sure if this dream came early on when I was doing very poorly. It was petrifying to see this. I distinctly remember going through a mental inventory of my pension policy – was it updated for death benefits? Yes, I did that already. Was my life insurance policy updated? Yes, I do that every year. I don’t have a will, but my wife knows how I would like my final arrangements. In my mind, I was preparing myself to die. I hope that wasn’t a cognitive projection of what my body was actually doing. But then the two medical professionals huddled in the corner, seemed to have an idea, and walked out. Meanwhile, I could see into the next room and watched the nurses try to revive someone unsuccessfully. I am thankful that it was only a dream, but I wish it wasn’t so vivid. The purple walls, the sterile metal beds, the dim lighting. I wish it was like every other regular dream I’ve had, the ones that vanish soon after I wake up.
In reality, when I came out of the coma, the doctors and nurses told me repeatedly that it was touch-and-go. This is how they put it to Leslie: I couldn’t turn the corner for the better because I wasn’t anywhere near the corner. I would have a setback, fight through it, have another setback, fight through that one, rinse, repeat. It was like I took two steps back, then one step forward, in an endless loop going nowhere for days.
I had other weird dreams. Like I was in western Maryland doing some research on an old murder case. And at one point I was at a concert. I didn’t like the music for some reason. It was pop music and I remember walking out much to the dismay of those around me, as if my presence mattered.
My last stop was a hospital in Bowie. I felt I had been there before. The room had blue walls and was filled with junk, like you’d seen in a garage or attic. A doctor came in, and she started working on my heart with a large black wrench. It was painful. But whatever she did worked, because she was happy and I actually felt better and positive about my condition. I would also very soon come out of my coma. Turns out the room I was seeing in my dream was the actual ICU room I was in, minus the junk.
I’m not sure exactly when I came to. It was either Friday, April 3 or Saturday, April 4. I was confused, especially since the board next to my bed said April. How is it April? How did 10+ days pass?
The nurse asked some questions to test my cognition. “Do you know where you are?”
I said, “Am I back in Maryland?”
“What year is it?” Kid you not, I said, “2021?”
“Who is the president?”
I let out an audible sigh. “Trump,” I said
It seriously took a few hours to realize what I experienced wasn’t real. I was even scared that someone stole my wallet at some point during my adventure. The nurses had to reassure me that I never left the ICU.
The drugs hospitals use to induce a coma can include fentanyl and ketamine. I’m not sure what they gave me, but as I was coming out of the coma, I developed withdrawal symptoms, the worst of which included a constant chill that four blankets couldn’t solve. Eventually, through persistence and other medication, the sensations subsided, paving my way out of the ICU.
After a few days in the ICU, I got moved to the isolation wing of the hospital. As I was wheeled out, the ICU staff held a “graduation party” for me by cheering and congratulating me for making it through. It was very heartfelt and emotional. They worked hard on me and cared for me in the absence of visitors who really wanted to be there.
When I got to my room, I was so happy to see that I had a bathroom. No longer did I have to sleep, eat, piss, and shit in the same room. With assistance from a nurse and a walker (as walking was still a struggle for me), I went into the bathroom and looked at myself for the first time in almost two weeks. The first thing that came to mind was the last lines of Elie Weisel’s Night where he said he didn’t recognize the person he saw. (Seriously, not trying to compare myself to a Holocaust survivor, but his lines instantly rang in my head when I saw myself for the first time.) My eyes were huge, my face was slack, my frame was diminished. I looked sick and it scared me. At the urgent care before my intubation, I weighed 205 pounds. When I got home, I checked in at 170 pounds. Not only did I lose that pesky tire, but I also lost considerable muscle mass. I was unrecognizable.
It’s a chore to stand for long periods of time. My chest is sore from breathing exercises. I got large pressure wounds from my feet being pressed against the end of the bed during my coma. For some strange reason, I have a bald spot above my left temple.
But I’m alive, safe at home, and no longer dreaming of death.
Part 3: How Nearly Dying Saved My Life
Before all this happened, I had to carry a jug of water with me everywhere I went because I was always thirsty. I wondered if I had an issue. Turns out I did, which made my most recent dealing with COVID-19 that much worse. After all, how does a 39-year-old with no lung or heart disease or other apparent health issue get ravaged by COVID-19?
With a secret underlying condition.
When I came to, the doctor asked me questions to make sure I was still cognizant. I had to assure them that my nystagmus (the uncontrollable movement of the eye) was something I was born with and not a result of the coma. Then he asked me, “Do you have diabetes?”
“No,” I said. “I might be pre-diabetic, but certainly not full-blown diabetic.”
“Well,” he said, “you are now.”
I forgot what they said my blood sugar reading was, but it was insanely high. My A1C currently stands at 12.5. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, a normal person without diabetes should be between four and six. The charts only go to 14. And this is the average over the last three to four months.
Apparently, I had raging type 2 diabetes for quite some time and didn’t know about it. And from what I’m reading now, diabetics are susceptible to COVID-19.
What probably made my story so appealing in a newsworthy sense is that I appeared as an anomaly, a healthy, relatively young person being ravaged by the coronavirus. But I wasn’t healthy. I had some serious issues that I ignored and/or was ignorant of. I should have had a blood test done earlier to discover that I was diabetic. I should have monitored my blood pressure more because it was near hypertension level.
Was it not for COVID-19, I would have had serious problems later down the road. Sure, I wish I could have known about it without having to rebuild my lungs and pretty much the rest of my body. I could have had the diabetes under control (which I’m doing now) and maybe the virus wouldn’t have been so bad.
Now my daily regimen consists of taking my blood sugar reading in the morning and night. I take two pills and one insulin shot each day.. I take a pill for cholesterol. I take another pill for high blood pressure. I also take baby aspirin every day to ensure my heart stays strong (nothing wrong with that, but just to make sure).
The sad thing about this is that I have health insurance and the means to see a doctor. I only went when something was wrong, like my knee hurting or a stomach virus. I failed to get yearly check-ups because I largely ignored my health. Meanwhile, communities of color are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than whites because of so many with underlying conditions like diabetes, but those communities lack affordable and accessible healthcare and live in food deserts. There is really no excuse for me.
Someone asked me if my experience has me thinking differently, and it has, but not in the way most think. Yes, I am grateful that my body and the help of staff at Frederick Memorial Hospital allowed me to overcome a disease that is currently the No. 2 killer so far in April. But the coronavirus has exposed other health issues that I’ve neglected for too long and now have a desire to correct.
The doctors and nurses gave me another chance at life. It’s now up to me to prolong that chance and make it the best it can be.
To read Part 4, click here.
Please read our stories on Jason’s fight to survive:
Jason Flanagan has been a journalist for nearly 12 years. At the age of 19, he began working for The Prince George’s Journal covering sports and later covered crime and education. A graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park, Jason worked as a reporter and editor at The Diamondback and was recognized for his spot news coverage of the Beltway sniper in 2002. He has also worked at The Prince George’s Gazette, where he covered local and county governments, and most recently at The Baltimore Examiner, where he covered local and state governments as well as the military. Jason, a father of two daughters, is an English and journalism teacher and girls soccer coach at a high school in Maryland, where he constantly annoys students by correcting their writing and quoting long-since-dead authors. Follow Jason on twitter at @flanglish