Five months ago, West Vancouver doctor Greg Phillips was in what may have been the best shape of his life.
Phillips and husband Matt Pettigrew were hitting the gym five times a week, were active and big fans of travel. High-blood pressure was his only underlying condition.
One-hundred and five days in hospital later, he’s close to 100 pounds lighter, is using a walker and has nerve damage in his left arm.
Phillips speaks with a deep rasp, and can only use 30 per cent of his voice because of a paralyzed vocal cord.
He’s now speaking out because he wants people to know COVID-19 is not a joke.
“If it can fell a healthy 59-year old, it can do that to anyone,” he said.
“It’s not a hoax, it’s not a conspiracy, and people need to know that. The rules that are out there to save people.”
The couple began showing symptoms after as they returned from a trip to Dallas in March with a friend.
All three eventually tested positive. Pettigrew was sick for two weeks, while the friend was completely asymptomatic.
“I have COPD, I have a history of lung issues, so we thought I was going to be the one who was hospitalized,” said Pettigrew.
That’s not how it played out.
Phillips went back to work after the vacation but was dizzy the first day. He went home and, because of health-care protocols, was tested and had his results fast-tracked.
Both men developed a severe cough, but Phillips was bedridden. After close to a week Pettigrew showed improvement while Phillips worsened — his face turning white and his lips blue while a home test showed his blood oxygen levels far below normal.
The couple went to the hospital on March 26 — not realizing it would be the last time they’d see each other in person for months.
The triage team checked his vitals, then wheeled him in.
“The nurse took a big step, extended her arm and put her hand out, and she said, ‘Stop,'” said Pettigrew.
“I didn’t even get to hug him, I didn’t get to say goodbye to him.”
Losing time in the ICU
Phillips says he doesn’t remember being admitted to hospital, or much of anything for the next seven weeks.
“The last message that (Matt) got from me, that I don’t remember sending, was a text saying, ‘They’re going to intubate me and I’m scared,'” he said.
“I remember very little of ICU, which is probably good.”
Pettigrew said doctors believe the virus was attacking his husband’s brain, and that Phillips developed encephalitis — a swelling of the brain — and showed stroke-like symptoms.
It wasn’t until mid-May that Phillips started to show signs of being himself again — at one point switching into doctor mode and trying to direct a nurse to prescribe him a specific antibiotic, and at another point, asking if Pettigrew had gotten around to a home improvement task.
The couple were able to chat by Zoom, but it was 54 days from admission before the couple were able to visit in person — and even then, separated by personal protective equipment.
“Everybody was dressed in yellow, everybody had a shield or a mask, glasses, and usually their hair was covered too,” Phillips said.
Phillips had several close calls in hospital — developing kidney failure and requiring cardioversion three times for an abnormal heartbeat.
He was on antibiotics the entire time due to sepsis.
It was “two months of hell in the ICU” before he was transferred to a rehab unit, and it wasn’t until July 9 that he was released.
While Phillips’ attitude is upbeat, he’s facing a long road to recovery.
He told Global News he still can’t swallow properly, requiring food to be puréed and water to be thickened — yes, you read that right.
“I have to have another swallowing assessment done sometime in the next few weeks to see if I can graduate from puréed to minced,” he said.
He has an abscess in his lung that is still resolving, and he’s constantly fatigued. On Saturday, he worked himself up to descending 10 stairs.
He’s put on 10 pounds in the 10 days since leaving hospital, and is working at physio exercises daily.
“When I left ICU, I couldn’t sit, so I’ve come a long way, and I’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
Doctors are still working on his vocal cord, and he’s been told there’s a one-third chance it will resolve itself, one-third chance he’ll need surgery and one-third chance it’s permanently damaged.
He doesn’t know if it will be months or even a year before he can go back to work, though he’s committed to getting there.
He said he’s increasingly frustrated with the stories he’s seeing of people gathering in large groups, shopping without masks and downplaying the threat of the virus.
“That’s just being stupid,” he said.
“The most important thing is that this is real. People need to be smart. They need to wear a mask if they’re in a group.”
— With files from Grace Ke