“You know I almost died from COVID-19. Three times,” says Deacon Jim Conroy of West Springfield. He’s pretty sure he caught the virus from his wife, Mary, who had been sick at home with COVID-like symptoms. Caring for her, he took precautions to keep himself safe. Jim, age 68, knew there was a chance he might catch COVID-19, but figured it would be a milder case.
Mary was still recovering when one day she noticed Jim looked grey—like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, she says. For the first time in her life, she called 911. He looked that bad
When Jim arrived by ambulance at the Emergency Department at Baystate Medical Center, Dr. Sundeep Shukla, the emergency medicine attending physician, examined him. Jim was having trouble breathing. Mary remembers the call she received before he was put on a ventilator to help him breathe. “They told me Jim would be intubated soon and I should talk with him since I might not get a chance to after that.” Mary realized then she could lose her husband to COVID-19.
Over the next several days, Jim fought to stay alive. He was not able to come off the ventilator and seemed to be on a rollercoaster, coming near death and then rallying back. Members of Jim’s care team communicated regularly with Mary, providing updates on her husband’s condition. Three times she received calls that Jim’s condition had worsened significantly. The care team asked Mary if he had a healthcare proxy in place, if she knew how to get to the hospital, and if there were other close family members who should be contacted if necessary. Those phone calls were difficult and Mary felt overwhelming guilt that she’d given him the virus.
BATTLING COVID-19 WITH INNOVATION
Dr. Shukla and Emergency Medicine resident Dr. Kristen Dowdy followed Jim’s progress closely and it was tough. Jim almost died three times because the COVID-19 virus caused hypoxia (Jim couldn’t get enough oxygen) and hypotension (low blood pressure) so his organs weren’t receiving the blood they needed.
“We are extremely lucky to have an innovative, multidisciplinary COVID-19 team who all worked together to use cutting edge therapies to help Deacon Conroy,” Dr. Shukla says. Jim had a lot of difficulty being removed from the ventilator due to hypoxia, so the team used a new therapy called “prone positioning” where a patient is placed on their stomach. This allowed Jim to improve his oxygenation, to be extubated off the ventilator and gain the necessary strength to recover.
UNFORGETTABLE COURAGE AND SUPPORT
“I got through it by praying a lot,” Mary says. “I have good friends—people to walk with me even though they couldn’t physically be there, and I had a mantra I repeated over and over and over to myself: Panic is the Enemy.”
When people ask Jim how he survived, he says 1) I got wonderful medical care and 2) I had so many people praying for me and I felt a reassuring presence that strengthened me.
From my doctors to the radiology technicians, everyone was outstanding, Jim says. They kept me informed and made sure I was comfortable. Dr. Shukla was wonderful and I was impressed that he called me two times to check on me after I went home. The Spiritual Services staff, some of whom I already knew, were reassuring and also wonderful.
“His tremendous courage, calmness, and complete trust in us will always remain with Dr. Dowdy and me,” Dr. Shukla says.
RECOVERY AND WORDS OF WISDOM
Jim was in the hospital for 17 days and when he was finally able to go home, he remembers seeing neighbors and friends in front of his house with welcome home signs. One little kid said, “Welcome home, Mr. Conroy. We hope you feel better soon,” Jim says.
Transitioning Jim’s care from the hospital to home, Baystate Home Health visiting nurses and occupational therapists come to Jim’s home to help him recover. Jim is feeling better and gaining strength so he can walk on his own. Surviving COVID-19, he says, has reminded him to enjoy what he has, like a day with sunshine.
“I would discourage people from thinking they could never get COVID,” Jim says. “I was surprised that I ended up in the hospital and it was as serious as it was.”