COVID-19 survivors' stories: 'Wasn't time for me to go'
The moment was dire. Joe Smith's oxygen levels had rapidly dropped. Doctors in the emergency room fretted over lost precious breaths.
So Smith, a 48-year-old Southfield musician and playwright, asked on a Sunday in late March to be placed on a ventilator to push air into his overwhelmed lungs.
"Somewhere in my brain, I thought, 'I'll be OK. Let's just do this,'" Smith said of his choice to go on a ventilator. "Even when I made that decision, I didn't feel a sense of doom. I did kind of think of what if?"
For the next three days, the ventilator prolonged his life. He awoke in the intensive care unit of Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township to attentive nurses, beeping machines and total delirium.
"My sister was like, if the machine wasn't breathing for him, he wouldn't be here," Smith said. "That's what the doctor told my sister. One of the nurses told me that it's only been you and one other person in this hospital that's come off the ventilator and made it."
He lost nearly 50 pounds after spending 11 days in the hospital and is recovering at home.
Smith is among the survivors of the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 2,400 people in Michigan and more than 40,700 across the nation, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. He is among a growing group of Metro Detroiters who are recovering from the coronavirus and willing to tell their stories.
There is 70-year-old Linda Beltzman of Farmington Hills, who survived six days on a ventilator but lost her husband, Stanley, a few days later. There is 51-year-old Julia Rosen of Birmingham, a fitness fanatic who said she was amazed by how bad the virus could be without requiring hospitalization. There is 90-year-old Rosie Flowers of Detroit, who represents an answered prayer for her minister son as she recovers.
And there is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the well-known Flint pediatrician who is fortunate enough to help aid in her own recovery but feels guilt when she thinks of others who have died.
These survivors aren't officially part of Michigan's 3,237 cases of coronavirus recoveries because they haven't reached 30 days from their onset of illness, but some are close.
'Just let me die'
Both Stanley and Linda Beltzman were widows when they met more than four decades ago. When she was 27 years old, Linda's first husband died of testicular cancer at 28. Stanley's first wife died in a car accident months later.
A couple for 38 years, Linda and Stanley got infected with the virus last month and their conditions worsened. He had diabetes, kidney disease and other health issues that put him at greater risk of getting severe complications from COVID-19.
Linda Beltzman said she hadn't been in the hospital since giving birth to a child in 1975. But around March 20, she and Stanley were taken on consecutive days by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield Township. They were both placed on ventilators at the same time. She said she was taken off after six days.
There were times when she'd say to herself, "just let me die," because, Beltzman said, she felt so panicked.
"The ventilator was the worst experience of my life," said Beltzman, as she struggled to breathe after every sentence. "It gave me panic attacks because I wasn't fully unconscious. I remember waking up, and I felt like I had a clothespin in my mouth keeping my mouth open."
Clad in protective gear and a wheelchair, she and her daughter said goodbye to Stanley at the hospital, where she sang Elvis Presley songs hoping he'd hear her voice. He died on April 2.
"He was never going to make it," Beltzman said of her husband.
'The sickest I've ever been'
Rosen, a lawyer, began to have symptoms on March 24 — the first day of the state's shutdown — after constantly washing her hands and staying six feet away from people. She had a scratchy throat and dry coughing, followed by a fever for 12 straight days and bad nausea.
Rosen said she didn't have breathing issues initially but had "horrible body aches" with pain in her back and legs. The shortness of breath came on the eighth day. An X-ray of her lungs at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak confirmed she was positive for COVID-19.
"I would definitely say it's the sickest I've ever been. It's the craziest virus ever," said Rosen, who runs a law firm. "It debilitates you. It was almost like a panic. It hurt so bad."
She has not left her Birmingham house much after spending a month under quarantine. Her first outing was to the grocery store last week wearing a mask.
"I think what's interesting and scary is, I guess, there's this part of me that thought, 'Oh if I get it, I will be OK," Rosen said. "I'm a crazy workout person; I'm so in shape. And then it hits you. And this is considered a mild case. And I'm like, this is mild? Holy crap."
'Don't let her die'
When Flowers of Detroit tested positive for the coronavirus, doctors sent her home to recover. But her condition worsened within a day as she had shortness of breath and felt lethargic.
The Rev. Kenneth Flowers, 59, of Farmington Hills, asked God for a favor while on his prayer kneeler at home: Spare his mother. He said he had success in 1994 when he asked God to let his grandmother, called "Good Mamma," live longer.
"I'm asking you the same exact same thing now for Momma," Kenneth Flowers said. "Don't let her die in isolation. Don't let her die without her family."
Rosie Flowers did not look good when her son got her to Ascension Providence Hospital in Southfield. Her oxygen level had dropped, the son said.
"For me, I just did not want to see her go out this way because I've seen church members, I've seen other people die in isolation," he said. "People are dying alone."
His mother initially didn't want to go to the hospital, Kenneth Flowers said, because she felt that she was more of a risk. When he left her at the hospital, "she broke down in the lobby," he said.
"I think she wondered, and I have to admit I wondered the same thing: Would that be the last time I saw my mother alive?" he said.
But after being home and improving, she returned to the hospital Monday because her bowels are impacted. She couldn't do an interview because of her hearing. The doctors at Providence Hospital say they are trying to strengthen her through rehabilitation.
Now the worry is about Flowers' 58-year-old wife, Terri, who has coronavirus and was hospitalized until Sunday night. Kenneth Flowers himself is at greater risk because he's had six stents inserted at different times and also open-heart surgery.
Doctor tells her story
Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who helped expose the city's water crisis, tested positive with COVID-19 last month after suffering with acute symptoms of fever, aches and headaches.
She had concerns because she had asthma, putting her at greater risk of developing severe symptoms. The symptoms went away, but then she developed a "really, deep, harsh cough that you hear about," Hanna-Attisha said.
The doctor has a pulse oximeter at home to monitor her oxygen levels. "I was blessed with the ability to care for myself as a physician and also have a spouse as a doctor," said Hanna-Attisha, who lives in West Bloomfield Township.
After losing her senses of smell and taste, she got tested and had to wait eight days for the results.
While her condition is improving, Hanna-Attisha said she has burst into tears because she knows others who have died from the virus.
"The weird thing about this illness unlike other kind of typical flues or viruses I've had in the past — it waxes and wanes," she said. "It's not the 24-hour bug. You can have periods where you feel better and you feel worse. The fatigue and the exhaustion can last up to two weeks."
Now she is looking to donate her plasma to help others who are sicker with coronavirus and urges other survivors to do so, too.
'Wasn't time for me to go'
For Smith, the virus started with a fever, but he wasn't initially alarmed.
"The fever would get down and then get back up," he recalled. "I had looked up and a week had gone by, and the fever of 102 and 103 was still there. But I still was trying to treat it like a cold.
"If I laughed or if I breathed too hard, I would just start coughing."
His sister and girlfriend pressed him to get tested for coronavirus. He relented. On his way to the hospital on March 29, Smith leaned his head "out the window to get enough air."
Medical professionals swabbed him for COVID-19 in the parking lot and told his family that they couldn't follow him into the hospital.
The hospital staff gave him an oxygen mask in the emergency room, Smith said, but he couldn't talk to them without coughing.
The doctor told Smith he probably was going to end up on a ventilator. "And I said, well, can we just do that now instead of waiting for it to come. Can we go ahead and rip the Band-Aid off?
"I felt a peace about what was happening," he said. "I wasn't worried. I wasn't scared. I felt like this was the way it was supposed to go."
After he woke up in the intensive care unit with an oxygen mask on after the ventilator was removed, Smith was moved to a hospital room where he continued his recovery, texting his sister, slowly regaining strength.
He returned home thankful for his life, optimistic for his future and under another quarantine ordered by doctors.
"My faith in God is really, really strong," Smith said. "I knew that God had a purpose for me, and it wasn't time for me to go yet."