Updated: Feb 19, 2021
Jean-Louis Bravard was the first person admitted to Boston General hospital with Corona virus and was on a ventilator for weeks in High Dependency. He came out two months ago and is now fully recovered. Here, he writes about his experience of the virus and the road to recovery.
Our 2020 was all planned in great detail. January to February were allocated to hiking around the South Island of New Zealand, then we would spend a few weeks between London and Vallauris before flying to Boston and returning to London in mid April.
After spring in London, followed by a week or so in Corsica, and summer in Vallauris, we'd return to London in late August. No plan past October, but basically an easy year, with the luxury of retirement and the passage from two to five grandchildren in six months.
Well… the plan started changing in mid February with the spread of COVID-19 and just about everything got disrupted. Sadly, we weren't the only ones. Luckily, I had a close escape and did not die without saying goodbye to anyone.
I am now recovering physically faster than mentally, but even if everything improves, the word normal will probably have a different meaning in our daily lives. On the plus side, the importance of family and friends has been crucial throughout this ordeal. Love and humanity were most certainly NOT in lockdown.
When we left London on March 15th, we were consciously making a choice between an unknown COVID-19 set of circumstances in Boston v.s. staying (probably isolated) in London. There were perceived risks on both sides, but we picked supporting Marjory, Elliot and the twins over the passive choice. When we finally flew out on March 15th, President Trump suddenly added Ireland and Great Britain to the list of banned countries for air travel.
In order to minimize risk, we thought it smart to transit via Dublin and pass immigration there. That was a good idea, but it failed for two reasons: The immigration locale in Dublin was totally overwhelmed and we waited for hours amidst a large, meandering crowd; in Boston we were asked to go through immigration AGAIN and faced another waiting line.
Upon leaving Dublin we were given a smart “tracing” one-pager where we put in our details. This sheet was never picked up anywhere… a sign of the upcoming disorganization we have been observing ever since.
On March 16th we had our family reunion and I met Oisín (his twin sister Saoirse was still in hospital). A very special moment and two additional shoulders to provide burping services. It was a great extended family time but a lot of our conversations centered on the pandemic.
Out of precaution Steve (Elliot's father) and I decided to be tested. On March 21st, Elliot drove me to the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). I walked to the Emergency Reception after being given a mask by a security guard. There was only one person ahead of me, but all staff wore masks and about half had donned a Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).
After answering basic identity questions, I was asked to step into a glass cubicle. There, I was managed by a triage team via Facetime between an iPad in my cubicle and two doctors on the other side of the glass (both in PPE spacesuits) – this was my first real warning things were going to change. I was validated for a COVID-19 test (at the time there were very few tests), and my temperature was taken by way of a rod held at a distance. A chest X-Ray was performed inside the pod with the door open and a large white machine parked in front of the room.
Then zap. An astronaut/nurse then took some bloods and I was asked to go to a waiting room. After about 1 hour I was released with a document showing all measures were perfect. A few days later, MGH called Marjory to inform her I was “Positive”.
Being tested “Positive” was not a huge surprise and I was not too worried. By now, Eibhlín, Marjory and several around me had a few mild symptoms and my impression was that we all caught the virus early and we all would be fine. In my case, from Monday the 20th I was running a fever but that was kept under control with Tylenol. This situation continued all week with temperature moving from 37 to 38.5C and then back down. I felt fine.
On March 28th I felt fabulous (37.5) and I sent a note to a few stating that all is great. However, later in the day my temperature rose again and then Tylenol did not seem to be effective. So, with 39.5C and the Tylenol, Elliot drove me back to MGH. (Elliot, if I ever infuriate you, remember that you kept me alive that day!). Same drill as last time but I had my hospital number and I went straight to triage.
For some reason I was totally relaxed. For me it was just a replay of the previous Saturday. I only remember a nurse asking me if I have ever been intubated. I think I responded no but asked the nurse to call Marjory. Then BLANK. Well not 100%. I remember speaking only in German and remember some awful hallucinations and nurses vacuuming my throat from green stuff. I have zero recollection of being intubated. My vocal cords are not 100% recovered, that’s all I can specifically attribute to being intubated. However, the hit I took was in many ways a multiple of my cancer experience of 2015.
I remember waking up on April 10th… just because the wall calendar in my room said so. I looked for my phone, called Eibhlín to wish her a happy birthday and I think we just cried. I had wires or tubes coming in/out of my body. My right hand looked like the inside of an old TV with very colorful wires. The left arm had one impressive IV. My nose was used for two tubes and I will pass on the other two tubes. In any case, I felt absolutely nothing. Some time after I called Eibhlín, two nurses decided I needed a wash, which considering my entry on March 28 was probably judicious.
If you can visualize my now frail body only covered by a gown (a johnnie as it is called in Boston) and two strong nurses, you would still think that is a tough job. It is, but the nurses put a solid tarp between my body and the sheet and attached four corners of the tarp to a chain, itself attached to an electric motor hanging from the ceiling on rails. One nurse pressed a button and, still mostly sedated, I was lifted in the air about 2 meters above the bed. It felt as if I was a drone except that the noise on the rails above was a bit scary.
While I was discovering parts of the room I had not seen before the nurses made the bed. I have no idea at what point they washed me thoroughly with warm water. But they did. I felt human… well just... and I fell asleep again.
The next day, we had the same dance of washing and bed changing. I was a bit more “with it” and could communicate a little more often thanks to my phone and WhatsApp. I must have been better as my bed and all were moved up one floor in the same inpatient building. That was very strange! I did not know at that time how happy that ICU staff were in having saved their first life from COVID-19.
The move was uneventful and I ended up in one shared room with a Russian I never saw (a curtain separated us). He had the outside window; I had the door which had a small window through which I could observe the permanent flow of nurses. So many nurses, doctors and staff would wave as they saw me look their way. That gesture of humanity touched me very deeply.
I think on April 12th, one nurse asked whether I would like a shower. The TV wires were removed but not the rest of the apparatus. I made three or four steps held by two nurses, my 'johnnie' was removed, and I could sit on a stool under warmish water. The pressure was poor, but I did feel human again.
Boy that is far better than the pulley and motor experience. I had absolutely no idea of my condition except that Eibhlín and Marjory did tell me that I was a miracle and would tell me more once out of the hospital. Apparently, I was improving so fast that the doctors decided to bring me ”real food”. I was served a huge plate of macaroni and cheese (Mac & Cheese for the locals). I ate about half out of curiosity… and to prove that I could eat. I was later given a vanilla ice cream (frozen at minus 300 degrees… it took me three hours to finish it). I was also given a glass of water with lots of ice, just in case I had forgotten I was in America.
The following day, the doctor decided to remove all remaining tubes. I was no longer being fed from a very strange vanilla colored liquid through my nose. While the oxygen pipe had been turned off earlier (without my knowledge!), the tube was taken away from my nose that day and I was given a “proper” breakfast of cheerios plus orange juice. I pleaded for more juice and the lovely nurse went around the floor and brought back seven more small containers. That was so lovely!
Later, two young ladies came to the room and told me it was time I workout. They came two days in a row. By that time, my Russian neighbor had left, and I could crawl to the window and back. They even brought a plastic step so I could train a little and prove I could survive returning to Marjory and Elliot’s home at some point. I tried to keep track of names and activities throughout so I could later say a personal thank you.
The people I can remember, and members of my family, are listed at the bottom of this article, but I missed so many names (and all ICU names due to my induced coma). Calling all by name, thanking them for their care and enquiring about the well being of their families was always well received. Shared humanity. I always said “stay safe” when nurses left my room and I always received a warm smile when they removed their mask and PPE at the door.
On April 14th I got the visit of Doctor Sawalla Guseh who told me I would be going home the next day. More tears. He was so gentle I thought he was a priest until Marjory set me straight. We had a good chat, but I only recall the emotion at the knowledge of going home alive. By that time I had also watched a lot of TV and news and seen the huge destruction caused by the virus. I was lucky. I was happy.
On April 15th I had the usual breakfast, and all was good. My IV hub was removed, and I could see that both my arms were massively impacted by a score of blood tests, each filling around three vials. I could walk carefully to the window and back without help and I waited for the signal. In late morning, a patient in recovery was brought in and obviously used the bed close to the window.
I was delighted to leave. I did not show any impatience, but I was ready to leave by 11am when one nurse walked in to tell me that everything was ready for my departure. I had heard strange noises for a little while so, when a nurse came with a wheelchair, I prepared my iPhone to take a video. Some exit! If you read this and have not seen the videos (a nurse was also filming) please let me know. When the nurses thanked me, I had to say, “no! Thank YOU… THANK YOU”.
That peak of emotion was only met by another peak when I met Marjory next to her car outside and when I met Eibhlín, Elliot and Áed and home... and later Rachel, Ronan and Luca by videophone. My tear glands were in overdrive, but it felt good. Real food and real wine that evening, but I also realized how much muscle mass (and fat) I had lost in the process.
I am only beginning to realize how lucky I have been, but one thing is certain: The circle of family and friends has been hugely important, and still is. Many if not all would probably have attended a celebration of my life, but together I am certain that force most certainly helped. How it helped directly I do not know but I know how supportive you all were to my family. Thank you. Thank You!
Quote from Doctor Jordan Romano: “We have the best books on medicine, but that virus has not read the book.”
Saoirse and Oisín (The twins); Eibhlín Marjory, Elliot, Áed in Boston; Rachel, Ronan, Luca in London Ghislaine in Holland; Nicole in Italy; 128+ “fans” all over the planet Dave for his (neck) massages Rob for his zoom PT session JLB (sort of)
Everyone at MGH but especially, the whole ICU team; the SDU team incl. Amanda, Kaitlyn, Sara, Katie, Kate, Whitney (PT), Sarah (PT); Dr Sawalla Guseh; Dr Jordan Romano; Liz, Danielle and the nurses in Somerville
Eibhlín, Marjory, Rachel, Elliot and Ronan
Written by: Jean-Louis Bravard
Cover image: collage by Sara Joyce plus family