Burton: My toughest battle

There are angels all around you. You have to listen.

COVID-19, also known as Novel Coronavirus and even more sinister SARS-2, can hit you with all of the speed and power of a linebacker blitz. However, when it hit me, it danced and tippy-toed the sideline, avoiding my defenses with the ghostly ability of a spin move.

That’s how it appeared to me in late November, on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

Monday, Nov. 23

A subtle, yet persistent tickle on the left edge of my throat, causing a small cough, light and innocent, but with all the inevitability of an Oakland-Maryville semifinal. That Monday was to be the last of my day job work for the week, the rest being in preparation for the BlueCross Bowl. We had our coverage set and our personnel assignments worked out, and I had an entire afternoon devoted to podcast prep.

Tuesday, Nov. 24

I awoke Tuesday with very sore ribs. I was drained as well. My ever-suffering wife (and 615 Preps videographer) went off to her paying gig, leaving me to work from home. I got up to do my regular work, but quickly noticed that I would meander off into other thoughts. I retreated to my recliner and blanket and dozed. When my wife returned that afternoon, I was convinced I was sick and feared what we had all been avoiding for the past 6 months – the dreaded ‘Rona, on the cusp of the state championships eight days away. How inconvenient.

I was running a 101-degree temperature that Tuesday, so the next day I cancelled a visit to my PCP and was instead instructed to Hendersonville’s St. Thomas clinic for a drive-through test. My best friend by my side, we were in good spirits when we arrived first in line for the COVID test. We spent the remainder of the day grabbing a sandwich, planning on an unconventional Thanksgiving stew (since we would be hosting no one).

Thursday, Nov. 25

There would be no Thanksgiving stew as COVID descended on us. My wife, drained and napping consistently, nose irritated, it hurt to watch her in pain. I, on the other side, holding her fevered hand, was wide awake and beginning to fall into the fever-induced madness of the disease.

What if I had been infected from one of the teams I covered? Worse yet, what if I had passed it on to one of those programs on the eve of their biggest lifetime achievements and they had to forfeit? I started mentally going through my contact tracing and I realized, finally, that I had put no one at risk. Due to my own COVID mania, there was no window I could have passed it, I was always well-masked and never near anyone less than six feet.

I felt better, but then I began to wonder where it came from, when did I get it? I never go in Walmart, yet I did once for disinfectant you can’t get at pick-up. I called an order into a local restaurant and had to wait in the lobby despite having called the order in 30 minutes in advance. My daughter promised to get tested (we had met outdoors for her birthday the day prior to symptoms) and she has immunity issues. I was scared, because she had a low-grade fever.

My appetite waned. Food literally turned ashy in my mouth. I knew I needed to eat, but every bite was nasty. I would whimper and pant in my sleep for pain and hunger but couldn’t satisfy it. I was Captain Barbossa from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I prayed. A lot. Prayed for relief, prayed that my wife would get better, prayed that the fires would pass.

Friday, Nov. 26

Post-Thanksgiving Friday came around and I was still suffering but had something to look forward to. I wanted to see if Summit could get back to the big game. I had been so looking forward to attending the game in person, for a chance to see Destin Wade, Caleb Jolley and crew up close.

Now, I was laid low in my recliner, the fever approaching 101 again, reduced to commenting on Twitter and relaying work communicados in what I hoped was a coherent state. I retweeted the final score, retreated to the recliner, hoping the fever would break, thinking if I could cross that goal line, I might be well enough to attend the BlueCross Bowl in six days. Again, I was delirious.

Saturday, Nov. 27

Saturday, I woke in tremendous stomach pain. I was directed to St. Thomas Midtown clinic where I was given medicine for nausea, but I was a walking zombie. The weekend passed in more of some vaguely coherent sitcom sketches. My wife had her COVID results confirmed that morning, and while she certainly was sick, she was nowhere near the pain in the ass I had become. I went through bottles of Gatorade and water to no avail.

Wednesday, Dec. 2

I had been in the full throes of COVID-19 for a week. My fever had peaked at 102.6 and was running rampant. I was asked to go down to the respiratory clinic in Hendersonville, where, white-eyed and exasperated, the angelic nursing staff took my blood and listened. Nothing. My fever was gone, like Keyser Söze gone. There were no sounds in my lungs. Still, the PA suspected pneumonia. She ordered a chest X-ray back at our local hospital that night. Watching the X-ray techs, I knew it wasn’t good as the techs spoke wordlessness in their sly nods and speak-easy verbiage. I would ride it out, I said. The worst is surely past…

Thursday, Dec. 3

I woke up around 3:45 a.m. with a hot coal in my gut, the result again of little to no food the night before or for several days. I slide out of our bed and make my way downstairs and swallow a handful of saltines (care packages from my family) soaked in Tropical Punch Gatorade. Still like eating sand, I moved to Belvita crackers and lay back in my recliner to crazy COVID dreams.

The hunger returned about 45 minutes later, along with panting and now the bargaining. Prayers and pleading coming from me along with a mysterious panting. My cat stared me down.

At 7:30, I ventured upstairs and asked my wife to drive me to the hospital in Gallatin. I had all my meds together in a box. I needed to put the fire out, to get my nourishment regulated if nothing else. I slid into the front passenger seat of the car and sat back. The drive was excruciatingly slow. Thursday morning commuters in no real hurry and my wife, not wanting to die in a fiery wreck, was taking flak from me for missing a light. After the remaining 45 minutes in relative silence, she parked, looking back at me with sadness, love, kindness, fear, all in one look. We were a scared newlywed couple all over again, uncertain of the future. We took a couple of seconds to mumble a few words and I made my way into the Sumner Regional emergency room, where I would not emerge for another five days.

Once I uttered the words “COVID positive,” I was ushered to a side room to fill out paperwork. I never completed it. I was immediately set up by no fewer than three healthcare workers that moved me to an exam room. I rolled in and out of consciousness. I vaguely felt the IV, the numerous probes and attachments, the clock on the wall reading around 9 a.m. It was around 10 when I phoned my wife, told her I was on an ER exam table, and that they were trying to find a bed for me. That was scary.

The COVID numbers were so out of control, there were no beds available. I worried. Where would they take me? Nashville, Murfreesboro, a nursing home? I was very thirsty and needed to make water as well. I was handed the little pee container. You know, no one ever really teaches you how to use those things, it is kind of trial-and-error. Definitely on-the-job training as it were. I did not ace my exams. The open door didn’t help.

At 11, I opened my phone to watch the kickoff for the Division II-Class AA finals. The wi-fi was sketchy, the video buffered incessantly, but I watched the back-and-forth of CPA and Lipscomb Academy’s battle as it waged. My butt ached. My wi-fi signal and consciousness interrupted by the texts and calls from family. I fell asleep again and woke as CPA raised their gold ball.

I felt a bit better as the USJ-Davidson Academy game began. I was told that a room was waiting for me upstairs, but that the patient had not been released. I prayed that patient was going home. It would be halftime before I or the Bears would be on comfortable ground again as DA rallied late in the first half. Somewhere in the third quarter, as Griffin Swinea was getting his stride going, I entered the second floor COVID wing, room 209.

Relieved to be in a room, I was able to eat real solid food for the first time in 14 days. A simple hamburger steak was delicious. I put the game back on, and the Bears were running away with it at that point. My night nurse arrived. A very pleasant young woman (whose name I have shamefully forgotten) explained the game plan.

I had COVID-19 and several acute respiratory syndromes with double pneumonia. The course was a plasma transfusion, meant to stimulate antibodies, and four rounds of Remsdesivir. In addition, I would be on steroids, antibiotics, and oxygen. I didn’t care. For the first time in weeks, I felt like I had been given the game plan, I talked to my wife briefly and slept as McCallie put away MUS.

Friday, Dec. 4

I was awakened Friday to the squeak of the hematologist. Unable to find a vein, she finally took the blood from the top of my left hand. It was excruciating but effective. She apologized, but it wasn’t her fault. I am not the easiest stone to draw blood from.

I met Tim, my nurse technician, a kindly enough gentleman that never seemed to have an off moment, despite the chaos that was surrounding him. Always there to make sure I was comfortable, had the right meds, he always read back my stats to show that there was improvement or at least stability.

Most importantly I met my doctor, Dr. Childers, a burly man that reminded me a lot of, well, me, in stature. He was reassuring, comforting. Always thanking ME for allowing him to treat me. He was a rugged angel, and every time he showed up, I reverted back to the frightened child I was, looking for reassurance that all would be okay if I was a good boy. He assured me I already was.

That is the bitch of COVID-19. You can do everything right and still get it; you can do nothing but help your body fight it. The medical staff can make you comfortable, can monitor you, but ultimately it is up to you and your body to beat it. Dr. Childers always ended our conversations the same way, which let you know how the battle was to be fought. “You are in my prayers.”

Friday night, I could walk into the hall of the COVID wing to get my blood moving. It was difficult and I was tired, but I would make the trip still hooked to the oxygen and go back to bed to watch Summit win its first championship. I was happy for the kids, to see them realize their dreams, to remember the COVID disruptions through the year that head coach Brian Coleman and I discussed in our Coaches ‘n Cue show earlier in the year. The pride he had in his program, in the kids. They had overcome so much. I felt a boost. I called my wife and we settled in to watch Andy Griffith and the “Loaded Goat” together, but apart.

Saturday, Dec. 5  

Saturday morning, I was awakened by the needle nurse again. This time, she went away empty. They send in a different nurse later that was able to find what she needed. It was a few hours before breakfast, but I was awake. I could hear the raspy coughing from the rooms next to me. I wanted to shut the sounds out, but I needed the sound of life in my room too.

My night nurse, Lyndsey, had administered the plasma the night before as well as the Remsdevir. I checked Twitter and the web page to see the photos and videos that our managing editor had filed the night prior and enjoyed the videos. He had so much on him, and the staff he was working with was doing everything to fill the role I was assigned to.

I do not remember when exactly I read about Coalfield head coach Keith Henry passing away from COVID-19 complications that day, but I believe it was in the afternoon during one of the early games. That hit hard. He was a year younger than I am. Though we had never met, even in passing, I was immediately filled with tears and grief.

Why not me? Why am I special? I prayed more, prayed for his family, his children, his kids. I was feeling emotional, and all the sudden my phone rang. My family. My mom, my dad, my wife, all within the next few minutes. They told me of the prayers and calls and well wishes. My boss was keeping in constant contact with my wife and he was all the way in Massachusetts. I leaned back. I reached out to feel all the love headed my way.

I was given an oxygen tank to roam the halls. My oxygen sats were better. Lyndsey, the ever-present angel making sure I was not alone, brought me water, making sure I was unhooked from the IV to walk. My oxygen stayed up; I was eating normally (although by then the diabetic menu found me).

Sunday, Dec. 6

Dr. Childers let me know there was a possibility I could go home Monday if I could get my O2 sats stable. Unfortunately, he would not be able to be there. On Mondays, he visits his hospice patients. I was saddened to hear this, but grateful not to be among them. We are so very blessed to have such angels among us. I never got a chance to shake his hand. I will though, one day when this wretched plague has passed, and we can smile, and I can truly thank him.

For that matter, I never thanked Lyndsey, though I did see her in passing, pushing her cart, on to the next bed, the next poor soul needing tending. There are miracles happing by the minute in Gallatin, if people only had the ability to see. If I had it to do, there would not be enough money to pay these folks. Tired, haggard, relentless, they are the Night’s Watch.

As I was being wheeled out to my adoring wife’s gaze, (they had tried to slip her a little old lady earlier) I asked my nurse Brittany what we should take away from all of this. What was it about this disease people don’t understand? She sighed, her 30-ish-year-old eyes worn with the haze of early 50s. She explained, “people politicize it, justify it, minimize it, but what they don’t understand is that it hits everyone.” Her husband, despite her daily routine, refuses to take it seriously. “I have a 30-year-old patient, he has a newborn he won’t get to raise.” The disease also seems to be hitting the Hispanic communities with a vengeance, but just as much the groups that cluster together, entire families.

I tell her I will spread the word if I can. She smiles wearily as my wife confirms the correct passenger and I struggle into her warm embrace. I’m going home. As we pull away, I hear one last voice, the voice of Tom Kreager, echoing the same sentiment he has been echoing for the past nine months. “Just wear a damn mask, people.”

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