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‘I mowed my lawn today’: A forced change in perspective due to Long-COVID

Surviving COVID-19 and now managing its ongoing health effects has given me a new appreciation for family, friends and life


“Yes, I still wake up feeling hungover every day. Yes, I am always tired, and cannot do all the things I used to do for those I love. Yes, I still get out of breath easily. But I have an amazing wife and daughters. I have fantastic family and friends. I have a new favorite song. And I mowed my lawn today.”

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I mowed my lawn today. I mowed the entire little quarter acre with a push mower, and I did not take a single break.

You might read this and wonder why it is such a big deal. After all, a lot of people mow their lawns every week, and a quarter acre is not a very big yard. For me, though, this was a very big deal.

Six months ago today, on Dec. 5, 2020, I tested positive for COVID-19.

Six months ago, I would take a 5-mile walk a couple times a week. Six months ago, I would talk your ear off, if given the opportunity. Six months ago, I was thrilled to serve my community as an active volunteer firefighter/EMT.

But six months ago, everything changed when I went from provider to patient. Six months later, I am still dealing with it. Every. Single. Day.

The third person on COVID calls: ‘It gave me a sense of purpose’

Ours is a combination department, staffed 24/7 with two firefighter/EMTs, supplemented by volunteers. When the pandemic hit, it became increasingly apparent that the two were not enough personnel, particularly on potential COVID calls.

I was in a unique situation: I had lost my job in the hotel industry just prior to the start of the pandemic and was still unemployed. That meant I was available for every call – and I made most of them. My response as a third person on the ambulance allowed the duty crew to don their PPE and remain in the patient compartment, doffing their gear only once at the end. It helped us minimize the exposure potential for our people – and it gave me a sense of purpose.

I knew the risks, and at times dwelled on the thought of what would happen, but ours is truly a calling. I HAD to keep doing what I could to help my crew and our community. We dealt with the same shortages of PPE as everyone else in the business, using rain ponchos and reusing N95 masks at first until supplies eventually caught up. I was issued a respirator early on, carried a jump bag with a change of clothes in my car, showered and did laundry at the station, and did everything I could to minimize the chances of contracting the virus or spreading it to my family.

Isolating at home: ‘I felt like I was in a dungeon in an old movie’

On Nov. 28, I was once again the third member of an ambulance crew. Our patient had COVID-19. On Tuesday, Dec. 1, I was tested as a precaution and the test came back negative, but by Thursday, I started with symptoms. And on Saturday, I tested positive, as did the other two crewmembers.

I isolated in my bedroom for eight days. I monitored my temperature and pulse ox, keeping a log every day, sharing it electronically with my concerned wife, Michelle. I felt like I was in a dungeon in an old movie: The door would open, a plate of food would be set just inside the door, and the door would close. If I did leave the bedroom to use the bathroom, everything I touched or was in my path would immediately be sprayed down. I tried desperately not to pass the virus along to my wife or kids.

Breathing troubles: ‘It was time to make the call’

During the eight days, my breathing got worse and worse. I went from being unable to take a deep breath to being unable to catch my breath at all.

I had lost a cousin to the virus just a few weeks prior. We had been communicating with each other up until he was put on a ventilator. He had told me multiple times that he believed he had stayed home too long. I did not want to do the same. I told Michelle it was time to make the call.

Unable to breathe, and aware of the risk I was to others, I stumbled out of my house to await the ambulance outside. I tried to reassure my kids and my wife that this trip was necessary, without causing them to panic. Whether I succeeded or not, I do not know. What I do know is how difficult it was to leave them, without a hug or a kiss goodbye. I watched my house receding out the window, fully believing that it was the last time I would see any of them.

A surreal hospital stay: ‘Exhausted but alive’

A strange, surreal week in the hospital followed. If I needed anything at all from the over-worked, over-stressed staff, they would have to don full PPE just to come into the room. I felt guilty asking for anything because of the process they would have to go through. Food came on disposable cardboard trays. Stethoscopes were disposable. It was difficult to understand what anyone was saying to me through ventilators and masks.

My roommate was on high-flow O2, C-PAP, Bi-PAP, and who knows what other treatments. He never spoke a word. I knew he was on the other side of the curtain, also battling COVID. I could hear the staff telling him about family members who had called to check on him and tell him they love him. Nurses could be heard telling him they loved him themselves, through masks, face shields and respirators. When I had the energy, I would talk to him, just so he would know he was not alone in the room.

Then he died. Alone, on the other side of curtain from me, with no friends or family by his side, he died. I did not even realize it had happened until the loud whoosh of high-flow O2 suddenly stopped.

I was much more fortunate. As I listened to countless Code Blue calls over the hospital loudspeaker, my O2 stats stayed up. I received breathing treatments, convalescent plasma, steroids, Remdesivir. I was exhausted, but I was alive.

At the end of the week, I was deemed the hospital’s “healthiest COVID patient” and sent home to make way for the backup of patients in the ER. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” blasted throughout the hospital as I was wheeled out to the car.

I had eight new prescriptions and orders to continue isolating in my bedroom for another week, but I was leaving the hospital through the front doors, and that was all that mattered. Even better, I was able to spend Christmas with my family.

Endless support: ‘We were not going through this alone’

The support that my family and I received from our friends and family (both biological and fire department) was amazing, awe-inspiring and humbling. Because I was COVID-positive, my wife and daughters had to quarantine in the weeks leading up to Christmas. While I was in the hospital, department members brought them a Christmas tree. A boot was passed on my behalf. Meals were cooked and delivered. Boxes of food were left on the doorstep. Phone calls, text messages, knocks on the door – people made us realize we were not going through this alone.

Messages of encouragement kept me going, both in the hospital and after I got home.

Long-COVID: ‘I learned I have lung damage’

Most of the people I knew who had contracted COVID healed and went back to some semblance of normal. Some had lingering fatigue, or issues with taste and smell, but they resumed their lives for the most part. I wanted to do the same. Instead, I continued having breathing issues and ended up back in the hospital at the beginning of January. Thankfully, this was a shorter stay, but I learned that I have lung damage from the COVID pneumonia.

For weeks, I could not walk up a flight of stairs or carry on a conversation without getting completely out of breath. A quarter-mile walk with my girls left me sitting on the side of the road while Michelle went home to get the car. Showering was exhausting. Every morning started off with the feeling that I was hungover. I could not concentrate. Reading was impossible. Too many conversations in my vicinity drove me nuts.

I managed to get an appointment with a pulmonologist who specialized in COVID cases. He sent me for a multitude of tests. Thankfully, they all came back with nothing to note. Yet, even now, I still get out of breath easily, and we have no idea if that will ever stop being the case.

Moving forward: ‘I have been given a second chance’

I have improved over the last six months, perhaps not as quickly as I would like, but I have certainly improved. I am still IOD (injury on duty) from the fire department, but I have found ways to stay involved. I was fortunate to be hired as a fire apparatus sales representative, with a boss who understands my circumstances. I have continued visiting my station and have found classroom training that I can do to stay active. I have gotten vaccinated.

Most important for me has been a change in perspective. I sank to some deep lows over the last year. Leaving my family and thinking I was not going to see them again was about the deepest of them. Now I feel like I have been given a second chance to appreciate life with them. Whenever I start to get depressed about my situation, I try to look back at where I was and realize where I am now. Yes, I still wake up feeling hungover every day. Yes, I am always tired, and cannot do all the things I used to do for those I love. Yes, I still get out of breath easily. But I have an amazing wife and daughters. I have fantastic family and friends. I have a new favorite song. And I mowed my lawn today.

[Read next: ‘Long-COVID’: Understanding the long-terms risks following a COVID-19 diagnosis]

Tom Walker has been a member of the Pascoag (R.I.) Fire Department for the past 12 years, currently serving as a lieutenant. He was recently hired as a sales representative with New England Fire Equipment & Apparatus Corporation, with a focus on ambulance sales.