MURRAY — Charles Guthrie is one of the triumphant stories so far of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact that he still gets to do things like smell fresh coffee brewing in the morning or view the birds and other creatures through his window or simply sit in his favorite chair at home is testament to that.
He is a few weeks removed from winning his battle with the novel coronavirus, a silent monster that has no cure and, as of Sunday, has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide. Somehow, some way, though, Guthrie faced the monster ... and won.
“I don’t think it was so much that I took it on. I think it took me on. I think that’s how it really went,” said Guthrie, who, as of Sunday, has been one of 40 Calloway County residents to have faced the virus. He is one of only five so far that have been hospitalized. One resident has died.
“I guess the only thing where I feel a little different is maybe I’m a little more short of breath than before, which I could attribute to my COPD too because I’ve had that pretty bad for a while. But I think I’ll make it. I’m thankful.”
Guthrie’s fight began about eight weeks ago when he began developing a sore throat and had a harder time than usual with breathing. He also had a persistent fever, so he saw his physician, Dr. Bob Hughes at Primary Care Medical Center.
Three days later, Hughes and nurse Melissa Allen were making a house visit as Guthrie’s condition had worsened. That house call ended with Guthrie being taken to Murray-Calloway County Hospital in an ambulance.
“(Hughes) suggested I go to the hospital, so I was in my chair at the time, and when I started to get up so I could go to the hospital, I couldn’t get up,” Guthrie said, recalling what happened next. “So the guys with the ambulance got me out of the house and got me to the back door and I waved to the wife (Carolyn). She was standing in the door of the house and I knew she couldn’t go with me (because the hospital was closed to visitors).”
The battle begins
Charles was immediately tested for COVID-19 upon arriving at MCCH. A few days later, the test confirmed he was positive, thus beginning the most important part of his fight, the battle to stay off a ventilator.
“Yeah, there were two different doctors (Dr. Sean Kelly and Dr. Ghanshyam Shastri, MCCH pulmonologist) who asked me if I’d have a problem going on a ventilator, you know? I took that to say I’m getting pretty close (to going on one). That kind of took my wind out of my sails because I started thinking, ‘What if I do go on that? I don’t know if I can handle that or not,’ and you hear that and you don’t get too good of a message because you’ve heard that people my age (76) with this kind of problem and having the many other problems (including heart disease) a lot of the times don’t pull through.”
Hughes does not pull punches when he recalls his patient’s situation.
“If you had asked me on the front end if he was going to make it, no, I didn’t think he was going to make it,” he said. “And I told them this when I talked to him on the phone the other day, but, at the time, you don’t want to give someone a lot of negative thoughts because that doesn’t serve as a constructive purpose.
“But with all of the conditions he has and, with how sick he was, he was (the perfect target for the virus), especially given the fact that he was on oxygen before he got sick. You’d expect complete respiratory failure.”
“It’s like breathing through a thick face mask. It’s hard to pull the air in,” Guthrie said of what he experienced from the virus. “I couldn’t take a deep breath for a while; it would hurt my chest. I talked to my nurses and Dr. Kelly about that and he said it was my heart, and of course I’ve got a heart problem, but I wasn’t getting enough oxygen and it was making my heart work too hard.”
However, Charles had help in this fight in the form of an army of medical professionals, who looked the part of being involved in a battle for one’s life. The pandemic has caused doctors and nurses to wear personal protective equipment when dealing with COVID-19 patients and, as Charles recalls, his helpers looked more like people “involved in some kind of atomic experiment” than medical pros.
“I never did see any of their faces to know who they were. They all came in with their wraps and masks and face shields, but I have to say they were all really nice,” he said.
Being his own man
Along with not wanting to go on the ventilator, Charles said the other part he remembers as far as being difficult to face was the hours upon hours of having to be separated from people. Ordinarily, Carolyn would have been in his room, but the safety restrictions relegated her involvement to phone calls.
“I know it makes me more appreciative going to a window and seeing a tree leaf or a bird or something like that,” he said. “You’re laying there in a hospital bed with IVs in both arms and people come in checking your blood every 30 minutes and your oxygen is turned up about as high as it goes.
“You don’t get over something like that.”
He said calling Carolyn to tell her about the confirmation of his positive COVID-19 test was also very difficult.
“I hated to have to tell her that,” he said. “She’s kind of my nurse here at home and I knew there wasn’t anything she could do. She couldn’t come to the hospital. I had to stay in this room by myself.
The faithful wife
While Charles endured the effects of the virus, Carolyn had her own hard times to face.
She and Charles have been married for 56 years and have more or less been inseparable. Now a virus had come out of nowhere and was threatening to end their time together.
And she could do nothing but wait ... and pray.
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever been through before,” Carolyn said. “I just prayed and went to pieces a time or two, just completely. When he leaves (in the ambulance) and you don’t know if he’s coming back, I’m telling you, it’s hard!
“The worst thing is that, as the ambulance left our house, I had forgotten to give them his medicines, so I had to follow up and take it to the emergency room and a nurse came down and got it but I couldn’t go in. That was pretty rough.
“I just prayed. I liked to let my nerves get a hold of me, but in a situation like that, you’ve just got to get a hold of them and keep praying.”
The tide turns
Charles was in the hospital for seven days, but it was on the fifth that something for which he had hoped began to happen. He began to feel better.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but all of a sudden, my temperature finally started going down. They had my oxygen turned up to 5, I believe, and that’s blowing pretty good in my nose, so I told them to cut that down some, so they cut it to 3 and that worked well,” he said. “So, after another little while, they came back in and cut it to 2, which is what I have it set on with the machine I have here at home, and I did fine.
“So then they got my IVs unplugged, my heart monitor and all of that and I realized that I was strong enough to get up and walk to my window and look outside for the first time. Let me tell you, that beat looking at four walls or ‘Gunsmoke’ on TV.”
A day later, Kelly, Primary Care’s hospitalist, told Charles he could go home.
“You know, I wish we could take credit for it, but I don’t know if we can,” Kelly said, reviewing how Charles managed to escape the virus’s deadly grip. “He had all of the risk factors in place for things to go bad. We were pleasantly surprised to see him hang in there and be patient and let the medicines take effect. He did real well and we’re all very pleased and thankful that he survived.
“In medicine, a lot of times, you just do what you know to do off of what the statistics tell you to do, what medicines to try and you pray for the best, and thankfully, he responded to the meds or responded to time, whatever it is.”
How did it happen?
One common trend with this virus throughout the country is that patients who survive cannot tell how they contracted it. The same appears true with Charles.
In fact, he thinks it is possible that Carolyn might have actually had it before he did. Carolyn said she had a sore throat and a slight fever, along with a major loss of appetite, a few days before Charles was hit so hard by the virus. Her illness was not severe and she was back to normal within a few days.
She also was not tested because, back then, criteria for testing was different. Only the worst-case patients were being tested in Murray to save the community’s allotment of equipment.
She said, though, that she cannot think of where she could have been infected.
“Melissa and I are going to go back out to their place and do an antibodies test on both of them,” Hughes said, noting how the virus manifests itself quite slowly. “Let’s say if I get it, for the first three days of the illness, I would actually be at my most contagious state. The thing is, you typically don’t get sick yourself until four to six days after you’re infected, and the average is usually five. That makes it very hard to deal with because it’s got that long incubation period, where people may be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic and that causes it to spread quite rapidly.”
The virus is real
Since Charles came back home, both he and Carolyn said they have been very troubled by news reports showing people throughout America not social distancing and refusing to wear masks in public.
The Guthries fear that a lot of hard lessons are on the horizon.
“I watch this and there are some people that carry signs that they say that there’s nothing wrong with the virus and all that? They’re crazy. It’ll kill you,” Charles said. “It bothers me to see people doing that. They’re going to get folks killed is what’s fixing to happen.
“They can’t imagine what it’s like to be in a room by yourself and nurses and doctors come and you can’t see anything but their eyes. It’s not fun. I can tell you that.
“Being away from Carolyn for a week and I can’t even see her? It’s more different than anything I’ve ever experienced. I mean, I’m watching the TV right now (Friday morning) and it’s saying that 85,974 people have died in this country. That’s a lot of people.
“I fought this disease as hard as I could and (God) has blessed me more than I deserve, I’m sure. I got all of these cards after I got home and I know people prayed for me and it meant a lot.
“So I guess He’s not through with me. He had a great chance to call me home, but if (telling my story) will help somebody realize just how dangerous this virus is, it’ll be worth it to do it.”
COVID-19 is beatable
“He had all of the odds stacked against him based on all of the medical conditions he has plus his age bracket,” Hughes said. “But things like this, I have to believe are inspirational to other people and, most importantly, it gives them hope.
“Just because you get this doesn’t mean it’s going to be a death sentence.”
Charles said his job was easy. Fighting the virus, as well as the imposing prospect of being placed on a ventilator, came down to little more than making sure he did not move around too much.
“Just be still and don’t use any energy,” he said. “I had to make it where I could get enough air (in his respiratory system) to keep from passing out.”
However, even Charles admits the experience is not going to be like that for everyone. If it was that simple, the death toll and the number of cases would not be so high.
“My situation isn’t unique, I know, but you think a lot more of it when you see how many have died,” he said, going back to how he lost his ability to taste and smell and how regaining that has been a nice payoff as part of his survival.
“I couldn’t even smell fresh coffee in the morning. That’s terrible! Anything sweet, just didn’t taste right. Oh, it’s wonderful now!
“But one of the best smells I got back was (Carolyn’s) perfume, you know? That and coffee are the main things where I really sat back and enjoyed them when I got back to the house.”