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Denver COVID-19 survivor recalls ICU terror, urges others to get the shot: “That little bug is still a killer”

Denver COVID-19 survivor recalls ICU terror, urges others to
get the shot: “That little bug is still a killer” 1

It looked like a bright spot, a rare bit of good news after a spring of loss, when family, coworkers and reporters lined up to see Bob Limon off after nearly two months in intensive care at an Aurora hospital because of COVID-19.

A year later, though, long after the cameras turned off and the cheers faded, a full recovery is still far off. And Limon, 62, says he’s worried that other people will go through the same battle he did, as life returns to normal while about half of Coloradans still aren’t vaccinated.

“You still have to realize that little bug is still a killer,” he said.

Limon, who worked at the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Administration Medical Center in Aurora, thinks he got exposed while helping out in the emergency room in April 2020, testing patients for COVID-19 with less-than-ideal protective equipment.

At that time, no one knew that the virus was already firmly established in the United States and that asymptomatic people could spread it, so hospitals were reserving the gold-standard N95 masks for employees caring for patients seen as high-risk.

Eight days after Limon started feeling like he might have a cold, he was admitted to the VA Medical Center’s intensive-care unit and put on a ventilator.

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His younger son, Bobi, drove him to the hospital and tested positive shortly afterward. Jamie, Limon’s older son, said he and his brother had a tough conversation about who would risk exposure, but both ended up getting the virus anyway. So did 10 other relatives, most of whom worked frontline jobs. Limon’s father died of COVID-19 in December.

“We all got it,” Jamie said.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Bob Limon, 62, points to one of his seven scars from having medical tubes inserted into his body during his hospitalization for COVID-19.

For the next month, Limon would seem to improve for a few days, then be hit with some new complication: falling oxygen levels, secondary infections from opportunistic bacteria and temporary kidney damage that required dialysis. At one point, doctors had to insert tubes to reinflate his collapsing lungs.

Limon doesn’t remember any of that, but that doesn’t mean that spring became a merciful blank spot. The things he does remember — the hallucinations caused by the sedatives that kept him from pulling out the ventilator tube that allowed him to breathe — are worse.

Bob Limon, 62, poses for a ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Bob Limon, 62, in Denver on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

At one point, the providers tied his arms to the side of the bed, and he thought he was being crucified alongside Jesus. Sometimes he believed he was lost in space, unable to breathe and struggling to get back to Earth. Other days, he thought he was being hurried to VA hospitals in ever-more-remote parts of the country, to thwart Iraqi soldiers out for revenge because of his service in the Persian Gulf War.

“Something horrific just kept jumping in,” he said.

On May 12, 2020, doctors told Bobi and Jamie that their father might not survive. His sons were adamant that Limon would want the hospital to do everything possible to save him, though, and he gradually started to improve, weaning off the ventilator by early June.

While the most dangerous part of his illness was over, processing what had happened would take longer. Since he was awake, he had to feel the helplessness of watching the nurses suction out his tracheostomy tube to prevent him from drowning in the built-up fluid. Sometimes he’d lay in bed, looking for someone to blame: the VA for not providing N95 masks, or doctors and nurses who were less than compassionate.

He still had a feeding tube and tracheostomy when he left the hospital for NeuroRestorative, a rehabilitation facility in Littleton. The send-off from the VA Medical Center on June 5 was confusing, and more than a little embarrassing, Limon said. When a nurse said, “You got this” to encourage him, he thought she meant he still had the virus, an impression that was reinforced when he had to quarantine before starting physical therapy.

The initial stage of recovery was quick, mostly because he wanted to get out and pushed as hard as he could. He was walking short distances and eating regular foods within three weeks, and had the tracheostomy tube removed in late June, according to a blog Bobi set up to update the rest of the family. He wasn’t discharged until July 21, though, and went to live with Bobi for a few more months while he kept trying to rebuild his strength.

Limon couldn’t return to his own home until October. He still deals with circulatory problems and chronic pain, and it’s been difficult to regain strength after he lost about a quarter of his body weight. Even cooking himself a meal can be draining, and speaking is still an effort, more than a year after he got sick.

“The moment I bear weight, the pain just pours in everywhere,” he said.

Limon said he hopes people who hesitate to get the vaccine will reconsider after they hear about his struggles. Experts recommend that people who’ve had COVID-19 still get the vaccine, to ensure full protection, and Limon said he got it as soon as the VA offered it to him.

He felt like he had the flu after getting his first dose of the vaccine, but it didn’t compare to the lingering pain the virus left in its wake.

“It was going to be nothing compared to the issues I went through,” he said. “I was miserable, but it’s nothing compared to being crucified.”

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