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My 2020 Story: 23 Days in a Coma With COVID-19

Marvin Pena
At left is a screen shot from the video of me waking up after 23 days in a coma. Three months later, it was incredibly difficult, but I was able to run a mile on the treadmill. Although I still have a hard time breathing through a mask, on Sept. 12 I was able to run the virtual Boston Marathon with my rucksack.
At left is a screen shot from the video of me waking up after 23 days in a coma. Three months later, it was incredibly difficult, but I was able to run a mile on the treadmill. Although I still have a hard time breathing through a mask, on Sept. 12 I was able to run the virtual Boston Marathon with my rucksack.

When 2020 began, things in my life were going so well. In 2016, I had started my wood flooring business with one other person, and by 2020 I had 10 guys working full-time. Business was booming, and I was busy doing estimates and running the business.

Then, in early March, life took an unexpected turn. My wife and I went to visit my mom, who lives with my cousin. After that visit, we found out my cousin's coworker had tested positive for COVID-19. Here in Massachusetts, people took the pandemic seriously, but this was early, before we knew much about it. Even so, my wife, mother and I decided to quarantine, and before long we came down with COVID symptoms.

Luckily I hadn't been on job sites, and at first I was able to just communicate with my employees by phone. But then I got more sick, and the business had to stop. I was pretty much the poster child of COVID symptoms. Initially I couldn't taste or smell. Then I had fevers, and then I got a cough, and then I became very tired just walking from the dining room to the kitchen. It felt like there was an elephant on my chest.

I'm an Army veteran and did two tours in Iraq, so at first I went to the VA hospital, where they tested me in a tent (it was positive) and sent me home. My symptoms got worse. I wasn't able to keep down any food or water, so I went to a civilian hospital. They asked me why I was exposing them to COVID, gave me two IVs and sent me home.

I only got worse. I was taking Tylenol like candy, but it had no effect on my fevers. My brother also had COVID and had gone to Massachusetts General, one of the best hospitals in the country, so this time my wife (who was still sick, but not as bad) dropped me off. I told her, "I don't know what's going to happen. Take care of my mom and take care of you." They have a hill going up the entrance, and although I've done marathons, I couldn't even walk up that hill. Somebody saw me and brought a wheelchair.

In the hospital they found my oxygen level was only 70 percent, and my temperature was 104. After four days of giving me oxygen in my nose, they still couldn't improve my oxygen levels, so they decided to put me in a medically induced coma and intubate me. My brother is my healthcare proxy, so before they did that I gave him my last wishes as far as what I wanted to happen with my company and my assets if I passed away, and I told him that if I became brain dead, they should pull the plug. I texted this so it was in writing.

After 19 days in a coma they tried to bring me out, but I had a bad coughing episode and began vomiting, so they had to put me back under. My family had been getting more and more bad news about me, because while I was in the coma I had gotten a lung infection, and then I had pneumonia. They told my brother the intubation equipment was working against me and they had to bring me out of the coma on the 23rd day, or they would have to do a tracheotomy.

Luckily the second time I came out of it. When I woke up, they said, "Hi, Marvin, you're in MGH and you've been in a coma for 23 days." I said, "WTF?" Then I said I was hungry. I had lost 50 pounds, but I'd been under so long they couldn't give me anything except water from a sponge.

I was in the hospital for another 10 days after waking up from the coma because I was so weak and they had to taper me off all the medications, including fentanyl. My muscles had atrophied so much I couldn't even walk.

Even worse than the physical effects was the emotional aftermath. The entire time I was in the coma, I had nothing but bad dreams, about everything from being back in combat in Iraq to other traumatic things that had happened in my life, and multiple times I dreamed that my dad passed away (sadly, that did happen four months later). When I came out of my coma, the hardest thing was that I didn't know what was real and what was not. I have a degree in psychology from a good university, but for the first time in my life, I felt like I couldn't rely on my own mind. I knew I was married, but I didn't know who my wife was. I had dreamed I moved, and I didn't know if that was true. I had to ask my family: Did these things happen?

Due to the pandemic, I couldn't have visitors, and I was so weak and feeling very sorry for myself. I had a nurse who gave me tough love: She told me if I just laid there I was never going to get better. She was right. Just sitting up made me feel like I was on a merry-go-round, but I had to do it. About eight days after coming out of the coma I was able to walk again. At first it was only like 5 feet, but then I was able to be moved out of the COVID ward and started walking more, eventually doing two laps around the unit. They said as long as I did my physical therapy, I could go home.

At first my wife had to bathe me, and I couldn't even open water bottles—that's how weak and shaky my hands were. It took about three months for my hands to stop shaking.

I wanted to get my business, my employees and my life moving again, and after about three weeks at home I was able to do my first estimate. My brain was still out of it, so my wife drove me to the refinish estimate. I walked the house—maybe a 2,000-square-foot house—and after that I felt like I had done a marathon, and I slept all the way home. I kept trying to put myself out there, but it was very tough.

Fortunately I was able to get my guys back to work right away. Pretty much the whole state had shut down, so projects were behind, and we've been busy ever since. My guys weren't able to work for two months and took a big financial hit between me being sick and the state shutting down. Fortunately I had money reserved and was able to give loans to my guys who needed them.

As I write this in late 2020, for the most part I feel like myself. Some things I don't think I will ever get back, or maybe they will take a long time. My lungs have not fully recovered, and wearing a mask is super tough. Being a runner, though, I went back to training for a marathon as soon as I could, and I ran the virtual Boston Marathon on Sept. 12, three months after I got out of the hospital, with a 40-pound rucksack. The local CBS station even did a story on me. From a psychological perspective, dealing with the traumatic dreams and then my father passing away, it's been a very tough year.

This was just one of the bills I received after so many weeks in the hospital in ICU. Fortunately, because I'm a veteran, all the bills were covered in full.This was just one of the bills I received after so many weeks in the hospital in ICU. Fortunately, because I'm a veteran, all the bills were covered in full.

In total I've received medical bills for about $550,000. I told people if the COVID didn't kill me the bills would have! Luckily the VA is good at paying for hospital bills since mine would have ruined me financially.

If you haven't already, my advice to everyone is to get your affairs in order, because you never know what might happen. I had life insurance, which is a must if you have a family. Make sure you have a written will so your family doesn't have to go through the headaches and cost of probate if you pass. And, if you're religious, get right with your maker.

The biggest advice I want to give to everyone is to take COVID-19 seriously. I was a healthy 35-year-old with no pre-existing conditions when I got sick. It affects everybody differently, but it's not just a cold, and it's not just the flu. It's a serious disease that can take your life and has taken lives. I'm lucky that I survived, but if I get that sick again, that will probably be it.

 


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