What it feels like to get afflicted by COVID-19 and die a slow, painful death

Most critically-ill COVID-19 patients battling in ICUs feel a sense of death stalking the hospital ward, fear of dying alone, tearful despair and disarray at home, solitude, anger

Representative image
Representative image

V Venkateswara Rao

“We have people that are sitting in bed and they’re breathing like they’re running a marathon at full speed,” Dr. Adupa Rao, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Keck Hospital of USC Los Angels, told Los Angels Times. “They’re breathing so fast and so deep, they’re trying to catch their breath,” Rao said. “It’s almost like you’re watching a goldfish out of water, gasping to get air, and it can never get enough.”

“They struggle, try to get out of bed, try to pull things off and leave… Some of them may even be saying, ‘Help me, help me, help me. I can’t breathe, help me,’” Manny Khodadadi, an emergency room nurse at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, described the scene.

"Friday, March 27: Nothing has improved, still. The temperature high, the pain indescribable — it was as if someone was pricking me with needles and turning them around my head. It was as if there were metallic worms walking inside my head. Faith is the only thing that keeps you strong and fighting for everything. But it looked like the virus has the capacity to break your spirit and turn you vulnerable. You don’t want to talk with anyone. It’s as if you’d simply want for this to end."

"Saturday, March 28: I’m sweating at all time. My feet hurt; I can’t step on the ground because I feel that someone is biting me with nails. I feel fatal. I lost hope. I said goodbye to all my relatives and I apologized to God. I was ready to die. My breath is really short and bad to the degree that I cannot yawn because I am very sleepy. I have not slept in 6 days. I have eaten nothing."

Alone in his home in Bay Area, with no health insurance, Rafael Arias (42) spent weeks battling COVID-19. A COVID-19 survivor, Rafael Arias's diary describes two days of his agony in his month-long fight, as published by San Francisco Chronicle.

A selfie video by P Ravi Kumar, a dying 34-year-old man giving his last message to his father from a government hospital in Hyderabad has left people shocked amid the coronavirus pandemic. The man was finally admitted to Hyderabad Government Chest Hospital after at least 10 private hospitals refused admission, the man's father said.

“They have removed ventilator and have not been responding to my plea for the last three hours to provide oxygen support. My heart has stopped and only lungs are working, but I am unable to breathe, daddy. Bye daddy. Bye all, bye daddy,” the man said in the short selfie video, which he had sent to his father from the bed of Government Chest Hospital, Erragadda in Hyderabad. His father said his son died minutes after sending the video.

Most critically-ill patients of COVID-19 battling in ICUs, feel a sense of death stalking the hospital ward, fear of dying alone, tearful despair and disarray at home, solitude, anger and a desire to share, or change their life.

"It was like a roller coaster," "I was feeling like there is a thick plate pressuring my chest and also needles poking my chest," South Korean engineering professor Park Hyun, 47, a COVID-19 survivor told Bangkok Post. It all had started with a dry cough and sore throat for him, followed a few days later by a shortness of breath so severe that he fainted while waiting for a hospital coronavirus test.

The 65-year-old cardiologist Fabio Biferali who spent eight days in the ICU at Rome's Policlinico Umberto hospital, described the pain he felt as "strange", which resembled having a little monkey on the back. "I couldn't sleep, anxiety invaded the room... nightmares came, death prowled," he said.

“One of the unfortunate things we’re seeing in the ICU is that people are not getting better like we anticipate them to get better,” Rao said. That’s despite treatments that include high-dose oxygen, ventilators, lung-bypass machines, blood thinners to prevent clots that attack organs and cause great pain, and steroids to reduce inflammation in the lungs.

In advanced stages, the sickest patients at least have the mercy of being sedated in the ICU. Palliative medicine strives to offer the most comfort and dignity possible for critically ill patients, but families still struggle to determine whether life is being extended or death is being prolonged.

“The experience of suffering takes on a completely new tenor with COVID", said Dr. Sunita Puri, a Keck palliative care specialist and author of ‘That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour’. “Now we’re having to facilitate goodbyes over iPads.”

“I think the unspoken tragedy of this whole COVID experience has been the loss of humanity toward the end of someone’s life,” Rao said. “We used to have the ability to be with our loved ones when they were passing away. Now people are passing away in isolation.”

No tearful adieu, only fearful.

(V Venkateswara Rao is a retired corporate professional and a freelance writer)

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Published: 19 Jul 2020, 7:00 PM