With the coronavirus crisis worsening by the day, The Colorado Sun reached out to three people who survived the disease in the spring to hear how their recovery is going and see what advice they have for their fellow Coloradans as the state weathers this latest surge.
Doug Summerfield, a 75-year-old Arvada man who spent a month on a ventilator, said he gets that people may be tired of coronavirus restrictions. But he said they are nothing compared to the effects of COVID-19.
“Believe me, they are not inconveniences compared to trying to recover from this, compared to trying to deal with the financial expense that hits you,” he said. “You don’t want to get it.”
Click the audio files below to hear from the survivors.
Doug Summerfield, 75, of Arvada
About five months after being released from a rehab center, Doug Summerfield remains pretty weak. His wrist is still in excruciating pain from nerve damage and has required surgery. He sometimes struggles to breathe.
“Not real great,” is how he said he feels. “I had hopes when I got out of rehab that in a couple months I’d be back to normal. Everybody is telling me it’s going to take a year. I’m afraid they’re right.”
Summerfield fell ill with COVID-19 in late March and spent about a month on a ventilator. Doctors thought he wouldn’t live, especially given his battles with asthma. But in May, he awoke — he calls it a “miracle” — and began what has turned into a long recovery.
Emotionally, Summerfield says he is doing OK, but he gets choked up when discussing the anxiety his friends and family contended with as he lay in a hospital bed on the edge of death.
“I didn’t go through a month sitting on the couch like my wife did counting the seconds in the night,” he said. “… My wife, my children, my friends — all of those people went through a horrible time. Some of them can’t even talk about it. That tears me up.”
He thinks people who refuse to follow social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines even now are not being “very intelligent.”
“Just the first week in the hospital was astronomically expensive,” he said. “Thank God I had decent insurance. For people who don’t have insurance — good insurance — for God’s sake you don’t want to catch this if for no other reason (than) it will financially ruin you. It will kill you.”
Lisa Merck, 51, of Crested Butte
Lisa Merck, a 51-year-old nurse practitioner in Crested Butte, was one of the first people in Colorado known to catch the coronavirus, but she still hasn’t totally shaken the effects of the disease.
She estimates she is about 95% of her normal self. In the months following her infection, she dealt with sore throats, headaches and hair loss. In August, she felt like she had a “mini relapse of COVID” — shortness of breath, a racing heart and chest pain.
“My sense of smell hasn’t totally come back yet,” she said.
Merck started feeling ill on Feb. 18 — Colorado’s first confirmed case wasn’t until March 5 — as she and her husband were returning from a medical conference in Hawaii. Her symptoms worsened to the point that she went to the hospital on March 8 and received a pneumonia diagnosis. She was tested for COVID-19, and the results came back positive.
Since Merck is a nurse with her own clinic, she wanted to receive two negative COVID-19 test results before returning to work. That took a difficult two months as she kept getting conflicting readouts.
“I’m frustrated with the whole way — the entire way — that the coronavirus has been handled, honestly,” she said.
If all Americans would just wear masks, she thinks businesses could stay open and infection rates would drop. She understands how hard it is for people to stay apart from each other, but it’s crucial that they be careful.
“Even though you think you’re healthy, and you’re immune to it, you’re not immune to it,” she said. “We don’t know how it’s going to affect each person. Everybody is different.” Merck pointed to the fact that her husband also caught coronavirus, but his infection was mild and only lasted a few days compared to her months-long ordeal.
Merck still hasn’t resumed seeing patients in person at her clinic in Crested Butte for fear of catching the virus again.
“Honestly, I am afraid of getting reinfected,” she said. “I’m not opening my clinic doors until we see corona go down.”
Dan Michalec, 55, of Parker
Dan Michalec believes he caught COVID-19 at the end of February during a Vail ski trip. Just over a week later, the 55-year-old Parker man checked into a hospital.
He doesn’t remember the three and a half weeks that followed. His condition had deteriorated enough that doctors put him into a medically induced coma and on a ventilator.
Michalec stayed in five different hospitals and rehab centers as his health improved, worsened and improved again. After nine weeks of treatment he was finally well enough to return home and see his wife and kids in person.
But Michalec’s path to recovery has not been linear. While he’s hesitant to call himself a “long-hauler” as other coronavirus survivors with lasting symptoms are known, some of the effects of the virus remain to this day, including lung scarring, high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction, spotty memory, motor and balance issues, and fatigue.
Despite setbacks, Michalec is focused on finding markers of success: his first breath sans ventilator, his first bite of real food in weeks — a giant sub sandwich — and pushing himself to regain his strength through physical therapy sessions.
“I’m very blessed and very proud of where I’m at,” Michalec said. “My goal is to be that if you ever saw me on the street, you would never know what I went through.”
Michalec doesn’t want to preach, but he does want people to feel a sense of social responsibility when it comes to living in a pandemic.
“Educate yourself and make the best decisions for you, while you still continue to enjoy this beautiful thing we have called life,” he said. “But also remember that your decisions can impact others as well.”
If anything, Michalec says, his wife is more intent on fighting the pandemic than he is; after all, she experienced the moment-to-moment stress and trauma of his hospital stay.
“What she had to go through, and what my daughters had to go through, it’s very sad, and I don’t wish that upon anybody ever,” Michalec said. “Ever.”
Updated at 8:41 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dan Michalec’s name.