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'It's Like Being In Solitary Confinement': Stories Of Fighting COVID-19 In Utah

Photo of a man in a hospital bed
Courtesy of Neal Murphy
Neal Murphy spent 13 days at the University of Utah hospital to treat a severe case of COVID-19.

As the spread of coronavirus in Utah appears to be slowing, state hospitals are still treating a small, but steady stream of patients with severe cases. 

While about 8% of Utah’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 have needed to go to the hospital, about half need treatment in intensive care units, said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Healthcare.

Most patients with COVID-19 have a combination of symptoms including cough, fever and sometimes a decreased sense of smell or taste, Vento said. But in severe cases, the virus cripples patients’ lungs, making it impossible to breathe without support. 

That was the case with Neal Murphy, one of the state’s earliest cases of COVID-19. He’s not a resident, but flew to Utah to celebrate his retirement and visit his son. He said he most likely contracted the virus on the plane. 

From there, he faced a rapid downward spiral, which he described as one of the most dramatic experiences of his life.

It began with him feeling a bit off. He was extremely tired, and slept one night for about 17 hours. Then, he came down with a 104-degree fever. Soon he was admitted to an intensive care unit at the University of Utah hospital, and given oxygen. But even at maximum flow, it wasn’t enough. 

He was then sedated and put onto a ventilator, which he stayed on for five days. 

“I woke up and my hands were tied to the bed and I got this tube in my throat,” Murphy said. “I said well, at least I’m alive.” 

Murphy is one of about 60 patients with COVID-19 who have been treated in the University of Utah’s ICU, said Nathan Hatton, a pulmonary critical care doctor who treated Murphy.

For each of them, Hatton said doctors have mainly resorted to what they call standard care because there is no known treatment for COVID-19. That’s essentially making sure patients are comfortable, have food and are able to move around, if possible.

“We as physicians have some tools to buy your body some time to heal,” Hatton said. “We can give you antibiotics. We can give you oxygen. But ultimately your body has to heal.” 

He said that can be hard to do at the hospital where patients are around other sick people. They’re forced into a different routine than they would have at home and face constant interruptions from doctors and nurses rushing in and out of rooms. 

Most who require ventilation remain sedated, falling in and out of a drug-induced sleep, which can be taxing on the body. Murphy said he asked to remain awake, but his experience was still a daze. 

“It’s like being in solitary confinement,” he said. “You lose sense of where you are.” 

Beyond the physical pain and inability to breathe, others have described the isolation as the worst part of the illness. Caregivers use extreme caution around patients because of how contagious the disease is. They’re decked out in protective gear or communicate with patients through a phone line in separate rooms, which makes the experience less personal. Hospitals have also restricted visitor access, so many aren’t able to see their family or loved ones. 

“It was a complete nightmare,” said Moises Lemus, who’s wife Cynthia was hospitalized for almost 20 days. “Not knowing how your loved one is doing, not being able to be there to hold her hand, to make sure she’s OK, that was the hardest part.” 

Consistent with patients around the world, those who are older or have underlying health conditions typically fare the worst with the virus. Murphy, for example, is 75 and has asthma.

But that’s not always the case. Cynthia Lemus is 24 and was otherwise healthy. And so far, the patient who’s spent the most time in the University of Utah’s ICU is someone under 60 with no other risk factors, Hatton said. 

“His body is improving overall but his lungs are not,” Hatton said about that patient. That’s not a good sign, as longer hospital stays generally mean a more difficult recovery. 

For Neal Murphy, he’s been recovering out of the hospital for the past six weeks. He said he began practicing jiu jitsu a few years ago. Even though the illness set him back, he hopes to be back at it in the next six months.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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