Parkites live to tell of their battle with COVID-19
For more information about Kenneth and Beverly Hurwitz’s battle with COVID-19, visit the online journal at caringbridge.org/visit/kennyhurwitz or tune into the Waling Home from the ICU podcast, episode 44.
While many people in the United States debate the danger of the novel coronavirus, Parkites Kenneth and Beverly Hurwitz know it’s not to be taken lightly.
The retired medical doctors who are also husband and wife, respectively aged 70 and 72, were both diagnosed with COVID-19 in March. While Beverly’s symptoms didn’t require hospitalization, Kenneth found himself on death’s doorstep.
For three weeks he was in a coma while doctors worked around the clock to find a cure.
Kenneth says his condition was so severe that his brothers, best friends and Beverly agreed with doctors to issue a do-not-resuscitate order in case he died.
“He was not expected to survive,” Beverly said. “We all came to the agreement if his heart stopped at that point and if they did resuscitate him, he would have come back on a vegetative level. And we all agreed that wouldn’t be fair to Kenny. So I told them to put that DNR order. And even at that point I was anticipating for the doctors to ask me to pull the plug.”
But Kenneth did survive. And although he doesn’t remember too much of his ordeal, he knows how surprised he was to contract COVID-19, and is still taken aback at how serious his ordeal became.
Kenneth’s first symptoms manifested in March, the weekend the local ski resorts closed early due to the virus’ threat.
“We had been skiing every day up until then,” Kenneth said. “When they announced the resort would close, we decided to go for a walk instead.”
The Hurwitz’s joints began to ache upon returning home from the walk.
“I got more achy over the next two days and then developed a fever,” Kenneth said. “A few days after that, I began to cough. That was strange to me, because I was in great shape. If I wasn’t skiing, I was going to work out at PC MARC.”
Kenneth’s symptoms worsened, and he began using oxygen.
“Since I am a physician, I had some oxygen in the house, but it just wasn’t enough,” he said. “The oxygen level in my blood was too low.”
The illness manifested differently in Beverly.
“Kenny’s illness ended up being 95% respiratory and 5% gastro-intestinal,” she said. “I was 10% respiratory and 90% GI, meaning I had constant abdominal pain for three weeks and couldn’t eat anything without having to answer the call of nature.”
Kenneth’s symptoms, which eventually included lung and kidney failure, worsened over the next two weeks, so the couple called an ambulance to transport him to Park City Hospital on March 26.
“This was early on in the COVID pandemic, and since Kenny had a fever of 103 and I had one at 102, the EMTs didn’t want to touch us, and asked me to drive him to the hospital,” Beverly said. “At the time he was admitted to the hospital, the policy was no visitors. So when I dropped him off in the parking lot, I was fearful that I would never see him again.”
While Beverly wasn’t hospitalized because she didn’t show signs of respiratory distress, Kenneth checked in and greeted a nurse he knew.
“I don’t remember anything until I started to wake up 15 days later,” he said.
During that time doctors put Kenneth into a coma, intubated him and put him on a ventilator and then airlifted him to LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Beverly said.
“When you intubate a patient, you place a tube in the trachea, or airway, so oxygen can get into both lungs,” she said. “You intubate a person when they are incapable of oxygenating themself, and COVID, in some people, does lead to lung failure.”
Part of the intubation process calls for doctors to paralyze patients, according to Beverly.
“They do this so the patients don’t fight against having the tube placed down their mouths and throats, or down their noses and throats,” she said.
Once the tube is in place, machines push oxygen into the lungs, Beverly said.
“Ventilation is usually done with patients laying on their backs, but with this particular illness some patients do better when they are placed face down,” she said. “Of course, that is so psychologically intolerable, so the patients have to be unconscious and kept paralyzed so they don’t dislodge the tubes and IV lines, and other parts of the life-support systems that are keeping the tissues oxygenated.”
Kenneth was flown by helicopter to LDS Hospital, where doctors continued his treatment. Beverly believes the transfer helped her husband’s recovery.
“The LDS Hospital is also very sensitive to the neurologic compromise that is associated with prolonged unconsciousness and paralysis, and people can become cognitively and emotionally impaired by the experience,” she said. “So they try to keep people awake and mobile to the extent they can. And we think that very well may be part of why Kenny not only survived three weeks on the ventilator, but also came back neurologically intact.”
Beverly worried about that, because COVID-19 is also known to attack the brain.
“It’s a vicious virus and people are known to suffer delirium and have horrible dreams,” she said.
Kenneth still remembers the nightmares.
“Because I was restrained and my tube was in my throat and I couldn’t talk, lots of my dreams were about me frantically trying to get people’s attention,” he said. “They were disturbing and I remember them well to this day, although I haven’t had any additional dreams or other setbacks.”
Beverly also believes Kenneth’s recovery was helped by Actemra, a trade drug that treats rheumatoid arthritis.
“When Kenny was first admitted to the hospital, he was given hydroxychloroquine coupled with azithromycin, but it didn’t have any positive effect,” she said. “Since we have physician colleagues scattered around the country, we found that other ICU doctors were administering Actemra, because one of the theories of COVID virus is that it releases inflammatory proteins called cytokines that can destroy a lot of tissue, and eat up cartilage in the joints. So, the doctors thought the cytokine storm could be calmed with this drug that is an inhibitor.”
Kenneth’s symptoms began to stabilize after he was given the drug, Beverly said.
“At that time it was a big experiment and they had to approve the dosage through a committee,” she said. “But once he was given it, some of his serum markers for systemic inflammation began to drop considerably.”
In addition to Actemra, Kenneth was given an anti-coagulation treatment, because autopsies on COVID victims showed an abundance of blood clotting throughout their systems.
“When he was treated for clots the procedure was also experimental,” Beverly said. “Now it’s standard.”
Beverly felt both relief, and anxiety at Kenneth’s upswing.
“When he did turn the corner and it looked like he would survive, I was still terrified that he would be severely disabled,” she said. “That was, in some ways, as terrifying as the thought that he was never going to come home.”
Release and recovery
Kenneth was released on April 22 after 28 days in the hospital, and has since been able to get back to hiking and playing 18 holes of golf.
He celebrated his 70th birthday on May 25.
“At my party, I told everyone that this is my rebirth, my second birthday,” he said. “Not many people get a second chance, and I’m so grateful to be alive. I want to go on with the life I had before, but make it better.”
Beverly, who also has recovered from her bout with the coronavirus, says her husband’s recovery is nothing short of miraculous.
“Three months ago Kenny was on a ventilator and getting worse,” she said. “So for him to come back as himself is astounding, and I’m eternally grateful to all the people who gave us emotional support to get us through this.”
Since Kenneth’s recovery is so remarkable, the LDS Hospital has sent a research physician and research nurse to follow him.
“No one would have anticipated he would have gotten back to this level of physical activity as he has,” Beverly said.
The Hurwitz’s also want to use Kenneth’s experience as a cautionary tale for the community.
“I never suspected that I would come down with COVID, because I was very healthy,” he said. “The only risk factor was my age.”
“This virus is indiscriminate of who it will infect,” Beverly said. “Why did Kenny wind up on death’s doorstep and I wasn’t? I don’t know. He was the picture of health. I, on the other hand, have hypertension and fight with my weight. So we would encourage people to wear masks, social distance and wash their hands and practice good personal hygiene. Because if Kenny got it, then you can get it.”
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