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Choking on a ventilator to save his life

A man finds himself strapped into a hospital bed with symptoms of COVID-19, waiting for the test results 

Scott Thomas rests, on a ventilator and feeding tube, at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. In total, he spent nearly two weeks on a ventilator.
Courtesy of Scott Thomas

He wakes up in a hospital room with an apparatus attached to his face. He doesn’t know how he got here but he knows the thing on his face hurts and the hurt runs down his throat. Panic descends. He tries to rip himself free, but shackles jerk at his wrists.

Because removing the ventilator could kill him.

A clear plastic tube crawls down his throat. Another tube, thin as a wire, snakes up his left nostril and down his esophagus. The assembly keeps him breathing.

Still dazed from the anesthesia, Scott Thomas assumes he has COVID-19. The last thing he remembers was a home visit from a nurse who found his blood-oxygen level was plummeting — a marker of the disease.

Once the shock wears off, he scans the isolated ICU unit. Through a pair of glass doors to his right, he can see out into a hallway. People walk past in white full-body suits with thick yellow gloves. When they see him awake, a nurse and a doctor visit.

“Who are you? What day is it? Who is the president?” Questions to gauge his level of coherence — and the possibility of cognitive impairment. Their suits squeak like two pickles rubbed together. With oxygen tanks mounted to their backs, they breathe like Darth Vader.

They don’t yet know for sure, but he’s being tested for the coronavirus. It’s going to take a few days, so he might as well settle in. He’s used to it at this point.

Last May, he got a blister on his left foot before a trip to Costa Rica to visit his brother. The blister swelled up like another big toe, though he forced himself through a round of golf before getting rushed to the hospital.

His toe had gone septic, doctors explained. They amputated his leg below the knee. Back in Salt Lake City, he spent two months in the hospital, where his stump became infected and split open. The infection spread to his back, then his shoulder, where it destroyed his cartilage. He can barely move it, even after four surgeries.

Now he needs a home health nurse, who on April 3 visited to test his blood. Normal blood-oxygen levels are between 95% and 100%. Scott’s test showed 70%.

Within an hour, it dropped to 35%.

That’s a telltale sign of COVID-19, which infects the lungs. Scott doesn’t remember the ride to the hospital, or the anesthetic, or the intubation.

For two days, he lies there half-conscious, watching astronauts wheel patients past those glass doors. The tubes in his throat hurt so bad he hardly notices a machine is breathing for him. Through his feeding tube, he smells stale oatmeal. And he can’t tell anyone he’s full.

He wonders if he’s going to die.

The doctors come with no spacesuits. The tests, they explain, are negative. Scott doesn’t have COVID-19.

It’s cold comfort, because he has something, and they don’t know what it is. So they give him a dose of Bactrim for the lingering infection and take him off the ventilator.

“Take a deep breath,” they say. “Here it comes.”

The tube snaps from his gaping mouth like a tape measure, followed by an eruption of mucus.

But the next day, Scott wakes up with a fever. By evening, he’s back on the ventilator, after doctors realize an allergic reaction to Bactrim caused a lung infection.

So Scott will spend another miserable week and a half cuffed to his bed. When he’s finally wheeled out to his waiting mom and brother, he’ll cry.

But for now, there’s nothing but the plastic in his throat. His nose bandaged, white tape across the top of his rugged black goatee, and still loopy from propofol, he slips in and out of consciousness.

“You’re basically choking on it,” he says.