Paul Harens has described himself as the face of COVID-19.
On this Christmas Eve, that face is tired, haggard — but grateful to be alive.
Harens of Yankton recently wound up at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital with a severe infection of COVID-19 and has since been very vocal in his support of masking and social distancing.
Harens tested positive for COVID on Nov. 23. His wife, Kathleen Harens, had already had COVID and, other than being sick to her stomach, experienced fatigue and a sinus headache. However, she does not have any underlying conditions, Paul noted.
When he tested positive, Harens received a dose of Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum anti-viral medication.
“They did that, gave me steroids and I had oxygen, too,” Harens told the Press & Dakotan. “Then they sent me home because I was better — for a couple days.”
Six days later, Harens said, he went downhill.
“On the 29th, my wife said I was being ‘really goofy’ and she thought I was hallucinating,” he said. “The doctor said, ‘You take him to the hospital immediately.’”
Harens would be hospitalized for the next two weeks.
“I don’t remember the first few days at all,” he said. “I had a temperature of 104°. I guess they were waiting.”
Hospital staff that attended Harens wore full personal protective equipment (PPE), and he was not allowed any visitors, not even his wife. However, he still talked to her every day by phone, he said.
His oxygenation was bad enough that doctors considered putting Harens, 69, on a ventilator, but decided against it. The nurses checked him regularly for pneumonia, which, luckily, he did not develop.
“Part of the problem is, I have asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs),” he said. “One of the things that the doctors say helped me out is that I walk about 1.3 miles three or four times a week. Then I go to the Wellness Center and I swim and get on their water treadmill and do another two miles.”
While Harens was hospitalized, the Yankton City Commission was having its second discussion about the possibility of a mask mandate in Yankton. It had chosen not to act to pursue one two weeks earlier. Harens took a selfie with his phone and posted on Facebook in no uncertain terms that they needed to stand up and get it done:
“To our Yankton City Commission: I have not been able to keep up until today to see what you are planning. You are planning wrong, You must look at Brooking[sic]. Look at what their numbers are doing. Have some guts and do it right. Here is the face of COVID 19 and it is me, day four in hospital & more to come. You can do better.”
The commission wound up passing a mask measure.
Even after his release from the hospital, the shock to Harens’ system from the virus and the medications was notable.
“I got thrush in my mouth and then my tongue, for some reason, got pitted,” Harens said.
Also, Harens said the illness combined with the loss of taste and smell made him not want to eat.
“The second week, I started forcing myself to eat,” he said. “I lost 30 pounds in basically two weeks and I have no strength. That’s the biggest problem.”
However, there are still a few lingering effects of his experience.
“Because of all the steroids and everything else, I became diabetic,” Harens said. “I make myself get up and walk around my house, which isn’t very hard because my oxygen cord only goes so far. I’m living downstairs because I don’t have an oxygen machine upstairs. That thing weighs about 40 pounds, and I’m not going to haul it back and forth every day. “
Also, because of his weakened condition, his doctors basically have Harens under house arrest, he said, allowing him to go out only for physical therapy and to doctor appointments until he is stronger.
“The best way to describe having COVID is that it’s like somebody sitting on your chest and they don’t get off,” Harens said. “It heads for the weakest point in your body. Also, they have me on a mood elevator because I now have a tendency to be very teary, emotional.”
The bright spot in this grueling experience, Harens said, was the staff that attended him at the hospital.
“They have the most wonderful care in the world,” he said “The nurses were wonderful. They checked on me 24/7.”
With COVID vaccines now becoming available, Harens said he is alarmed by the news that some individuals don’t want the vaccine, preferring to get COVID.
“I think that would be the stupidest thing in the world, because you don’t know how it’s going to affect you,” said Harens, who added that he always wore a mask and social distanced.
One thing Harens said he had plenty of time to do in the hospital was to read up on COVID, and though he does not know how he became infected, he understands the threat much better.
“It can happen more than once,” he said. “So wear the damn mask and keep the social distance.”