I got COVID and spent 19 days in the ICU last year. You do not want to get COVID. Here's what that was like.

·5 min read
Christopher Stolarski, a St. Francis man, nearly died from COVID in late 2020, before safe and effective vaccines were available.
Christopher Stolarski, a St. Francis man, nearly died from COVID in late 2020, before safe and effective vaccines were available.

Just over a year ago, I was admitted to the intensive care unit at St. Luke's South Shore with acute respiratory failure.

Here are 26 things you probably didn’t know about being hospitalized with severe COVID-19 — one for each day I spent in the hospital (19 of them in the ICU).

1) You can only lie on your stomach or side. This is extraordinarily uncomfortable, and it can cause nerve damage. I now have meralgia paresthetica — permanent nerve damage in my right hip and thigh.

2) You will pee into a jug while lying in your bed. This means you’ll always have at least a little pee on you and your gown all the time.

3) You poop through a hole in a small metal chair with a bucket attached. Getting out of bed to do this leaves you so breathless that the nurses have to wipe you. This is humiliating.

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4) You will be on a drug called Lovenox. It prevents blood clots, which — if you have COVID — you will probably get. They give you this drug at least twice a day as an injection. Like, a needle. Oh, and the needle goes in your belly.

5) Your daily blood draws start at 4 a.m. Wake up! It’s needle time! And they draw anywhere from five to seven tubes of blood each time, so it’s not a brief interruption. (For at least six months post-discharge, I’d still wake up every morning at 4, like clockwork.)

6) Your chest X-rays are usually around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. These are far less frequent, but just remember — as soon as you fall back to sleep? It’s needle time!

7) You’ll wear a blood pressure cuff 24/7. It goes off every hour, even when you’re sleeping. I named and talked to mine like Tom Hanks and the volleyball in Cast Away. ("Frank," by the way.)

8) Your oxygen will probably be delivered via a “high-flow nasal cannula.” The nosepiece will turn your nostrils raw. Also, when the saline that humidifies the air runs out, it’s incredibly painful.

9) You might also get O2 from a BIPAP mask. This is VERY uncomfortable, and you can’t talk, eat or drink.

10) Hospital food is tragic. That is all.

11) Because of how much oxygen they’re pumping into you, you’ll lose your voice. This makes it nearly impossible to communicate with your nurses, doctors and family.

12) Eventually, they’ll make you walk. You will never feel so breathless and weak and scared. On my first walk, it took me 45 minutes to go 10 feet and back.

13) There’s a great chance you’ll develop anemia. This means not only are your lungs not absorbing enough O2 because of COVID, your blood doesn’t have enough hemoglobin to effectively carry what little O2 you are getting to your muscles and organs. You’re suffocating.

14) The meds they give you for anemia make you nauseous and your stomach will be upset. Also, it turns your poop ink black.

15) You’re going to hallucinate — and not in the fun way. You will see and hear things that aren’t there. It’s sometimes horrifying, it’s sometimes just a little unnerving. But it’s always terrible. Eventually it goes away — months later.

16) Everything itches all the time. First, the room is very dry. But also… You have at least six EKG leads stuck to you 24/7, and those itch. The pulse oximeter taped to your finger itches. Also, you can’t shower, so…itch.

17) Time, as an entire construct, disappears. Other than the aforementioned 4 a.m. wakeup call from the phlebotomist, you generally don’t know when you are. Days of the week? LOL, not a thing.

18) So. Many. Pills. And many of them are the size of a shoe. That potassium pill is a like swallowing your iPhone.

19) The simple 5-second act of readjusting your position in bed will leave you breathless for minutes. Something — scootching up in bed — that you once took for granted is now a full-blown aerobic exercise.

20) If you’re lucky enough to not die, you’re going to experience death. They try to hide it, but they’re not good at it — I saw more body bags wheeled past my room than I care to recall. I still have nightmares about it.

21) To rightfully limit their exposure, doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists only come into your room a few times a day. This is isolating, especially since your family can’t visit. And you have to ration your requests.

22) Remember that oxygen cannula I told you about? It hooks behind your ears and causes sores. And that BIPAP mask? It causes sores on your forehead and nose bridge.

23) Minor quibbles, all things considered, but: the pillows suck, the sheets suck, and you’re no longer in control of your temperature. Put simply, you’re at least a little uncomfortable all the time.

24) It’s expensive! I hope you’re insured. My experience cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thanks to good insurance coverage, I was “only” on the hook for just south of 10 grand. (Don’t have $10K? Bummer. But good news! The vaccine is free.)

25) Leaving the ICU and/or going home doesn’t mean “healed.” Quite the opposite, actually. Transitioning out is incredibly difficult. In fact, this is where the real anxiety, depression and PTSD kicks in.

26) You’re about to be destroyed. Your body, your mind — everything you know feels wrong. Prepare for nightmares, crying, anxiety, low energy, breathlessness, awful short-term memory, poor cognition, etc., etc. COVID will steal your breath while it robs you of your soul.

This all happened to me in November 2020, while I was exercising caution and — importantly — before vaccines were available. I was unlucky; young and relatively healthy. Today, this is preventable. We have safe and highly effective vaccines.

It’s not too late until it is. Take your shot — it’s free and easy. Don’t suffer needlessly, and don’t let those you love suffer or worse.

Christopher Stolarski, 41, lives with his wife, Erica, in St. Francis.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: I got COVID and spent 19 days in an ICU. You don't want COVID