I had coronavirus and was in a coma for 23 days while on a ventilator. I’m sharing photos of my hellish battle so that people understand how brutal the recovery process is.
- Phillip Guttmann is a writer, producer and licensed therapist who lives in Los Angeles. He traveled to New York City back in March and contracted COVID-19.
- He remembers calling his family to say his final goodbyes before being placed in a medically induced coma for respiratory failure. He also recalls having terrifying nightmares while in the coma for 23 days.
- Guttmann is now recovering and wants to educate others on post COVID-19 symptoms. His body is just now healing from Stage 4 bedsores, but he suffers from intense peripheral neuropathy (numbness and burning pain).
- His biggest plea to Americans is to wear masks and practice social distancing.
- This article contains images that some may find distressing.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
I wound up among the first wave of folks to contract COVID-19 in March 2020 — and nearly died.
I was on a work trip in New York City between March 3 and March 14. Looking back, it was perhaps the worst possible timing imaginable.
When my plane took off from LAX bound for JFK, I knew that people in Italy were dying and that a few cases had found their way to mainland USA. I was aware of a cruise ship that was stranded with sick passengers somewhere off the Pacific coast. I knew not to wear a mask, because we needed to reserve those for medical personnel, and I knew to sanitize and wash my hands and to not touch my face.
I followed those instructions. And yet sometime between March 3 and March 14, I was part of the first wave of people to contract COVID-19.
I didn’t see it coming. I worried out loud like everyone else, but I didn’t really think it would happen to me.
I don’t know where I got it and I don’t know how — and I’ll never know the moment of my transmission, the location, or the circumstances.
I was in court rooms, in the subway, in crowded bars and restaurants — I was on the move and busy, working, watching the news like the rest of America as things started to progress.
A couple days before I had to fly back home to LA, I planned to shelter in place and searched for a mask and gloves for my flight since things were getting scarier.
I landed in LA on Saturday, March 14th, and for a moment I felt safe, as if I’d dodged a bullet.
But within 36 hours, I started feeling off: I was fatigued and had body aches. By Monday, my temperature spiked to 101.2°. Instinctively, I knew I had contracted COVID-19.
I went into the ER that same day and was almost turned away — despite my fever and coughing — until they learned I’d just gotten off a plane from NYC two days earlier.
They rushed me right inside after that, if that tells you anything about the state of NYC mid-March. (If you remember, New York City had been the epicenter of the novel coronavirus.)
I can’t remember taking the actual tests, but my flu test came back negative and doctors came into my ER room to tell me that they suspected I had COVID-19. My coronavirus test results came in positive a few days later.
The next few days were a blur. I was admitted to a regular hospital room and remember seeing the eerie blue Scientology building outside my hospital window and getting freaked out (I personally find the building unsettling).
I remember a nurse casually telling me that a lot of his patients with COVID-19 were crashing and being put on ventilators. I asked if that would happen to me — I was terrified. He replied, “I sure hope not!”
I remember the food. My first night in the hospital I had missed dinner and was tossed a dry turkey and cheese sandwich in a plastic container. I ate it, bland as it was, because I was actually hungry.
There was another night where they forgot to bring my dinner. I was famished and one of the nurses was kind enough to bring me a carton of Chinese takeout food.
How could I be hungry when I was otherwise so sick and had no energy? But for the first few days I was. I remember there was pudding, jello, graham crackers and sparkling apple juice.
I remember some phone calls and crying in pain from coughing so hard.
And I distinctly remember wanting to warn everyone on social media to wear a mask and to be careful — though I don’t actually remember taking my selfie and posting it to Facebook.
And I don’t remember much after the third or fourth day.
I am told that I went into respiratory failure on Monday, March 23, and I was rushed up to the ICU where I was intubated and placed into a medically induced coma.
I have no memory of being put on the ventilator or the critical moments before. I have a fear of dying young, or something going wrong and losing out on this great gift of life, so I’m thankful I don’t remember anything leading up to my coma.
I was told later by nurses and doctors that I was terrified in the moments leading up to my intubation, because I just knew the odds of surviving on a ventilator were slim.
I managed to call a few friends and family and am told I said goodbye, as in, “I’m calling to say goodbye, I am being intubated and don’t think I’m going to survive.” Having no memory of those moments has spared me additional suffering.
But I do remember the many nightmares I had on the ventilator while in a coma. One of my nightmares was of my friend putting me in a well and physically torturing me with electric shocks while I struggled for oxygen. This was one of maybe 30 different nightmares I experienced. It was pure hell, and the horrific nightmares still haunt me deeply.
I also remember the flashes of doctors and nurses coming in and out of my room and putting feeding tubes down my nose while commanding, “Swallow, Phillip, swallow!” I had to have my arms restrained because I was pulling the tubes out
I remember flashes of Frasier or morning news programs playing on the TV in my ICU unit as machines beeped and alarms went off and chaos happened all around me.
I remember being moved and prodded by medical personnel, ordered to take deep breaths, and being asked to state my name and open my eyes.
I remember struggling to breathe.
I remember being cold, being hot, hearing nurses advising doctors what my vitals were. I remember being naked and not caring (usually my worst nightmare), and other bits and pieces.
But I didn’t worry about dying so much. I worried about it a little, but I was mostly too tired and too sleepy.
I hallucinated and thought I could make phone calls by ordering Siri to dial my friends and family. I imagined that I was calling out, begging them to come rescue me.
For 23 days, I was on that ventilator and in and out of that coma. For another 2 weeks after that, I was semi-lucid in the ICU, hooked up to machines and enduring coronavirus test after test.
My IV was pumped with drugs while nurses cried to me about another patient on my floor passing; they said that they couldn’t take anyone else dying.
One night an exhausted nurse held my hand and thanked me for not dying. He told me I was only the second person in the unit to come off the vent alive.
When they transferred me to a step-down rehab hospital, the nurses and techs gathered and applauded and cried — someone they treated had actually survived. It was a good day.
One of my nurses, Elisabeth, who was on loan from a hospital in Chicago, reminded me about our agreement: “There is not ‘I can’t.’ There is only ‘I will try.'”
I decided then and there that I would try.
And I tried for 18 more days in another hospital and I have tried ever since May 19, the day I came back home.
In total, I was hospitalized for 65 days: 39 days in the ICU and 23 days on the ventilator.
Over two months of my life was lost to hospital beds, tubes, machines, and agonizing nightmares — all without seeing a single familiar face.
I’ve been avoiding being active on social media and interacting with people since being discharged from the hospital. I needed time to contemplate what had happened to me (and what had almost happened to me).
It’s finally sunk in — but not completely. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, while also trying to figure out what’s happening in our country right now. COVID-19 and systemic racism is a lot to be contemplating at once.
Trump (and other politicians) has so much blood on his hands. They urge people to laugh at masks and deny racism exists. George Floyd was killed in my hometown, in Minneapolis. Where is the love and how did we ever get so divided, so careless and so broken?
Meanwhile, everyone lovingly asks, “How are you?” and I’m not sure exactly how to answer that question.
I am staying for a little while with one of my best friends in San Francisco, because while I recover, I can’t be alone and need the moral support and help.
I’m ok — not amazing — but I’m hanging in there. These are the three things I really want to say to anyone who comes across my story:
1. Many people are already familiar with COVID-19 symptoms, but there are post symptoms that people haven’t heard about.
I have intense peripheral neuropathy (numbness, weakness, and burning pain) in my hands, left forearm and parts of my toes. This happened because the nerves in my neck were compressed during my coma.
I had Stage 4 bedsores that are finally healing well after more than two months of excruciating pain.
I am fatigued daily and have limited energy that varies day to day — and while I can walk 20-30 minutes at a time, I can’t run or lift weights like I did before.
The initial look at my heart is positive, but I’m still waiting for a full summary from my doctor. I’ll find out soon if I sustained any damage to other vital organs and the exact state of my reduced lung capacity and scar tissue (inside my lungs).
The way my pulmonologist has put it is that my lungs never be 100% of what they were, but that just maybe they’ll get them to 90 or 95% over time: “Put it this way, I wouldn’t expect to run marathons again.”
I never ran marathons before COVID-19, so perhaps that’s a consequence I can live with.
The list of other ailments that comes after is akin to a long and winding road with limited visibility on outcome. Commonly heard complaints from members of online support groups (such as Survivor Corps on Facebook and Body Politik on Slack), include but are not limited to:
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Aches and pains
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath (or, as is commonly abbreviated, SOB)
2. Life is a gift.
I am keenly aware of how close I came to being in the ground.
I am grateful — more than you can imagine — that God pulled me through and decided I wasn’t quite done. I’m grateful to be here to tell you that I love you and to live another day.
My situation came so close to going the other way. I marvel each day when I walk in the park, by the ocean and even when I hear the voice of my father on the phone.
Life is still a gift, even while at the same time it feels like the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced and causes me constant pain.
3. The most important thing I want to say is to please wear a mask.
I cannot express adequately how surreal it feels alone to be walking outside among the living, blending in, “passing” for a “normal” and healthy person, but when I see people congregated on parks and sidewalks not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines, I want yell, “Are you kidding me?? Do you really not get it?? Do you not understand that the simple act of putting a cloth mask between you and me can save a life, possibly yours?”
I can’t understand why some Americans simply refuse to acknowledge basic facts and refuse to put others first. I thought we were better than that.
When I was 23, I remember watching in awe as New Yorkers helped one another during 9/11. Many donated blood and plasma, and some professionals drove hours to show up and volunteer to help wherever they were needed.
And while I see some traces of that during the pandemic, some people still refuse to social distance and wear masks. There are viral videos of people screaming in Walmart saying they refuse to have their “freedoms and rights violated.”
As a COVID-19 survivor, this is mind boggling.
My appeal to Americans and anyone reading this (especially to those who think wearing a mask is for the elderly, the infirmed or the weak) is to please look at the picture of me in a coma and tell me that my life — or anyone’s life — isn’t worth what is tantamount to such a tiny sacrifice, for a temporary time.
The director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, recently stated that he believes we could greatly flatten COVID-19 in the United States if all Americans would commit to wearing a mask for the next 4-8 weeks. If you do the math, that means that by Labor Day we could turn this disaster around and save who knows how many lives.
The picture of me in a coma this past April is one that I never thought I would share with anyone. I personally can’t stand to look at the photo because it reminds me too much about the endless nightmares I had while in the coma, and I really try not to think about them.
But if it will keep just one person safe, if my photo will make one person uncomfortable enough to decide to wear a mask — then sharing my picture is worth it.
I’m also sharing a picture of myself from this morning because this is also a story of healing and getting better, and I want to sign off with a bit of hope and gratitude. Look at me now and how far I’ve come since April.
And I’m almost myself again. Not fully, but almost. That’s worth something in an otherwise difficult, unprecedented time.
Phillip Guttmann is a writer, producer and licensed therapist. He holds an MSW from New York University and an MFA from The New School in New York, where he lived and worked between 2002 and 2017. He moved to Los Angeles in 2017 to refocus on his writing career and specifically television and film writing. He has written three short films that have won numerous awards. His last short film, Black Hat, screened at over 40 film festivals world wide including the Tribeca Film Festival, the American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival, Cinequest, British Film Institute and many more. It won grand prize in the 2019 Iris Prize. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.