I survived COVID after being on a ventilator, but my nightmare was far from over

My wife’s soothing voice was one of the first things I heard when I came out of a medically induced coma. It’s also one of the first things I hear when I find myself slipping into what I call my “dark place.”

“You’re OK,” my wife assures me. “You’re OK.”

Since surviving COVID-19, I sometimes feel myself slip into this dark place — one where I am scared. Lost. Uncertain.

Some days the dark place comes out of nowhere. Others times it comes after fighting against anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and misinformation. But this day, it came after hearing the news we have all heard too often: Someone I know is sick.

A friend and colleague tested positive despite being fully vaccinated. I worried about my friend. I worried about myself. My friend and I were in conversation – masked and distanced – the day before the announcement.

My mind went to a bad place. And no matter what I heard my wife say, all I could think was “Will I have to do this again?”

The dark place I found myself in is one many of us have found ourselves in of late.

Through personal conversations with fellow COVID survivors – especially those who were on a ventilator – I am learning the non-physical effects of the coronavirus can be just as debilitating as the physical ones. And while remarkable medical advancements have been made to address the physical symptoms of this horrendous virus, the hard truth is that our mental health care system remains stuck in pre-COVID times.  

Lorenzo Sierra in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and his wife Rhonda Cagle, in October 2020. Screenshot taken during a FaceTime conversation. (Photo: Family handout)

I was on a ventilator 

In early October I was on a ventilator with COVID-related pneumonia. At age 53 with Type 2 diabetes and a few extra pounds, my chance of survival was far less than 50 percent. But after 11 days in the intensive care unit, and thanks to the tireless care of frontline heroes, I made what medical professionals at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore called a “miraculous” recovery.

But that recovery came at a cost. I lost more than 30 pounds in less than two weeks; mostly muscle weight. It left me weak; unable to walk. Physical therapy and a slow return to my normal exercise routine is helping me recover. But mentally, I found myself returning to my days in the hospital when I was overwhelmed by the tests; the sounds, the unknowing and, most of all, the loneliness.

The first few nights at home I had trouble sleeping. When I did sleep I had nightmares.

Any news of the pandemic could easily trigger me. With each day, the spiraling death toll left me with what I now know is survivor’s guilt. Conspiracy theories and claims that COVID-19 was “just a bad flu” caused deep anger. 

‘Why did I live when so many didn’t?’

One would think hearing stories of people who have died would remind me of how lucky I am. And I do feel incredibly blessed in surviving.

With that, however, also comes the questions. “Am I doing enough to justify my existence?” “Am I living a life worthy of the efforts of my healthcare workers; worthy of the prayers sent my way?” And, of course, “Why did I live, when so many didn’t?”

Generally, my emotions are internalized. But sometimes I go to the dark place. After months of trying to help myself, of hearing my wife’s voice telling me I am OK but not quite believing her, I realized I needed professional help.

It was then I discovered our country is woefully unprepared for the mental health pandemic we are facing.

COVID-19 has ushered in a mental and emotional health crisis, especially in minority communities like the one I live in and represent.

I am one of the lucky ones who, after searching for a few weeks, was able to find a therapist who is able to help me process this trauma. But so many others, especially those in communities of color and low-wage frontline workers, are not as lucky. This gap in care is leaving us on the brink of a worsening mental health pandemic.

We will get better – but only if we take action

The news of increasing vaccination numbers, fewer U.S. infections, and continued COVID-19 federal relief has provided hope for the first time since March 2020. 

Lorenzo Sierra in Avondale, Arizona, in January 2020. (Photo: Family handout)

But those refusing the vaccine will cause us to remain mired in the pandemic. Perhaps most disheartening are policy makers who refuse to acknowledge the need for comprehensive assistance —mental, physical, and financial — keeping us in this dark place.

As a fellow policy maker, I know how hard it is to find solutions to complex problems like the ones we are currently facing. But as I am learning in my own recovery from COVID, sometimes recovery starts with just one step out of the dark place. That means increasing access to community counseling, emergency health lines, and equipping first responders with the tools they need to provide compassionate care.

It means putting aside partisanship and recognizing that we all want the same thing — to heal and come back stronger.

It’s up to each of us to determine when and how to seek mental health support to meet the new normal with purpose and resilience. But it is the responsibility of our leaders to ensure that choice is available to every person.  I pray America can meet this challenge better than it met the pandemic.

Doctors said she wouldn’t survive COVID: After 25 days on a ventilator, she’s renewing her wedding vows

Lorenzo Sierra is a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, Legislative District 19. Follow him on Twitter @Sierra4AZ

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