JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tommy Shapard said he didn’t know if he’d be alive to tell the story of his fight with COVID-19.
He was so uncertain he would leave the hospital alive, in fact, that he recorded goodbye videos and sent them to his wife and three children.
“I just said ‘love each other, take care of each other and I had individual messages for each one, just to let them know how proud I was of them, just to give them words that they could hold onto,” Shapard said.
“I had to get those words out so they knew that I loved them and what was going on because it was so sudden.”
Sudden. Just how fast he said his body deteriorated.
“I’m 45 and this and this thing attacked me,” he said. “It [Coronavirus] doesn’t discriminate.”
Shapard is the Minister of Music at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church and the Director of Choral and Vocal activities at Florida State College at Jacksonville.
He has asthma and said a few weeks ago when he was struggling to breathe, he attributed it to symptoms he gets around this time of the year. When those symptoms got worse, he went to an urgent care and got medicine. That was on March 15. This was a few days after he and his family went on a trip to Tampa for spring break, but he said he isn’t sure where or when he contracted the virus.
The medications didn’t help, Shapard said. He started noticing what he described as a chill in his throat whenever he breathed or used his inhaler.
“I never experienced anything like that before, so I knew I was going into something else,” Shapard said.
He then went to his primary care doctor on March 18 where he was given antibiotics for bronchitis, after his doctor did chest x-rays. A few days later, his doctor advised him to go to the emergency room when he didn’t get better. He went to the ER on March 20.
“The troubling part was I didn’t have a fever, so because I didn’t have a fever, I was dismissed, all along my lungs were just getting attacked and getting worse,” Shapard said.
At the time Shapard went to an emergency room at a hospital he didn’t want to name, you had to have a fever to be tested for COVID-19. He was not admitted to the hospital, diagnosed him with pneumonia and sent him home.
“They sent me home with a high-powered cough syrup and a decongestant and told me to hydrate and sleep,” Shapard said.
“I thought, ‘maybe they’re [the ER doctors] right. Maybe this is just pneumonia and it’s going to see itself to the end here and it’s going to get better, but by Wednesday, March 25, it got uglier than it had been and it was brutal,” he said.
On March 25, Shapard used the Telescope service to virtually talk to a physician’s assistant. The PA evaluated him, and called Baptist South’s ER and told them Shapard was on the way and most likely had COVID-19.
He drove himself to the hospital the night of March 25 and said he could barely walk up to the checkpoint at the hospital.
“I had had some moments where there’s this quick breath that you can’t control, that the COVID takes control of the lungs and I had had some episodes like that, but that night, getting to the ER, it was almost nonstop,” Shapard said.
The walk from his car to the checkpoint at the hospital was about 50 yards, Shapard said.
“I knew what was waiting for me on the other end, I knew there was oxygen, I knew there was great medical care and I just had to get 50 yards there,” he said.
He was tested for COVID-19 that night in the ER, and tested positive.
“The doctor in the ER said I had COVID lungs and they were the worst that she had seen," he said. "They were all white on the X-ray, so from that point, which was very surreal and very frightening.”
Doctors and nurses rushed him in a special elevator to the eighth floor, the COVID ICU. He said there, more than 20 health care workers, including an infectious disease doctor, a pulmonologist and technicians, just to name a few.
“I’m not even a NASCAR fan, but it felt like it was my own pit crew that had surrounded me and they all knew what they were doing, and they looked me in the eye and called me Tommy,” he said.
Shapard said it was around 4:30 Thursday morning the doctors told him to call his family, thinking they’d have to put him on a ventilator.
“They wanted me to speak to them perhaps one last time because at seven a.m., I could be on a ventilator,” he said.
Shapard’s family didn’t answer since it was so early in the morning. Instead, he recorded videos of himself and sent them to his family and friends.
“They were all asleep, and once they woke up, I may have been on a ventilator,” Shapard said through tears.
“[I told them] ‘I may be put on a ventilator the machine [that] will work my lungs while the doctors and nurses attack the virus and let me rest while they do the fighting,’” he said.
By Friday morning, doctors moved Shapard down a floor out of the ICU and into the COVID isolation wing. He never did have to be put on the ventilator. Shapard credits hydroxychloroquine, a drug usually used to treat malaria and lupus, and of course the doctors for his recovery.
“They saved my life, those doctors and nurses need to be congratulated," he said. "They need to be loved. They need to be held up as heroes in our community. I’m grateful and humbled because I know some people are leaving the hospital in a very different manner.
One of his doctors told Shapard they’re studying and using the drug. He said the doctor told him not everyone responds to the drug, but many are.
“He left it as, ‘Tommy, it’s all we got. It’s all we have right now,’” Shapard said.
He was in the hospital for a week and was released Wednesday. He's now at home recovering.
“To go from the anguish of those little short videos and texting them out to family and friends, to be wheeled out into the sun of Jacksonville, it’s just surreal and I can’t describe it,” he said.
“It comes with mixed emotions because not everybody is surviving and I came close to not surviving. This morning, I had my first cup of coffee in, I don’t know, 15 days and it was the best cup of coffee of all time and I played fetch with my golden retriever in the backyard and it was the best game of fetch ever.”
Shapard documented his journey on Facebook he said to let people know about his struggle to get help.
“I was my own advocate,” he said. “[I also wanted to] detail what that was like, life beyond the curtain. That’s the point when family members say goodbye they can’t stay there, and so I wanted people to know about this process in these extreme cases,” he said.
Shapard said the posts have spread all over social media, and several family members of COVID patients have reached out to him with questions.
To those who still aren’t taking the virus seriously, Shapard has a plea.
“Stay at home, stay at home, they [those not listening to guidelines] are creating a very dangerous situation,” he said.
“Not everybody is surviving, and I came close to not surviving. I found an even greater gratitude in life. That’s all I can think about right now: how thankful I am to be alive,” Shapard said.