When COVID-19 first started spreading, I didn’t think the threat was real.
I thought people were inflating the numbers, and I didn’t think the illness would be that serious for most people. I was opposed to wearing masks, which I thought was infringing on my rights. I only wore one if I was absolutely forced to, and when I did, I opted for one that said, “This mask is as stupid as my Governor.”
I certainly never thought COVID would ever impact me personally. I’m a super healthy, athletic, 35-year-old veteran of the Army with no pre-existing conditions. I was running 4 miles and bench-pressing 395 pounds during the day, and at night I was partying, drinking with friends, and hanging out with anyone I wanted to — never once giving a single thought to social distancing.
My views about this virus were definitely affected by my politics. I’m a conservative — I was before I got COVID and I still am. But I do see some things differently now. This virus changed everything for me.
My roommate got sick first, and I didn’t necessarily think it was a big deal. He had a fever and didn’t feel great, but it didn’t seem serious. Even so, I moved out of our apartment and back home with my parents to get a bit of space from him. A few days later, I started to not feel quite right. At first I thought I was hung over, but when I didn’t feel better after 2 days, I began to wonder. Then I went hiking and came home with the most extreme leg pain I’d ever experienced. My legs felt like they were on fire. Things progressed quickly after that.
Next, I got the worst headache I’ve ever experienced, and then I developed a fever of 104 that I couldn’t break even with medication. I drove myself to the ER three different times over the next couple of days. Each time they gave me IV medication to bring the fever down and released me. On my first visit they did a COVID test that came back positive, but my case wasn’t bad enough at that point to be admitted, so they kept sending me home to rest.
Then the breathing problems started. I’ll be honest, that is one of the scariest things I’ve experienced in my life, and I’ve been deployed in Iraq. Wanting to breathe and not being able to, no matter how hard you try, is absolutely terrifying. A friend called an ambulance for me, and I passed out. I don’t remember the ride. I woke up at the hospital where I’d been admitted with dangerously low oxygen levels and lungs full of COVID pneumonia. By that point, I believed in the virus. But it was too late to do anything about it.
Things continued to get worse, and after 3 more days, I was on supplemental oxygen, the highest amount the machine could provide, and it wasn’t enough. Doctors said I needed a ventilator. That requires you to sign some release forms, which I did, and I’ll be honest — I didn’t care what happened at that point. I sent texts to my son and my parents telling them that I loved them. I was hallucinating, seeing angels and demons, and I really thought I was going to die. I was OK with that too. I just wanted the misery to end.
But there weren’t any ventilators available. The pulmonologist said we would have to wait for one to become available and miraculously, in the next 2 hours, my breathing started to slightly improve. That morning they had given me my first doses of remdesivir and convalescent plasma, so maybe that’s the reason. I don’t know that I’ll ever know, but I started to slowly get better after that. I ended up being in the ICU for 9 days and in the hospital for 12.
But my nightmare wasn’t over once I was released because by that time, I had given COVID to my whole family. My brother and sister were both were asymptomatic. My mother, who is 67 and has some underlying conditions, got it too. She had a fever for 3 days, and it was no big deal. That’s the weird thing with this virus. It’s a roll of the dice. There’s no rhyme or reason to who gets hit the hardest. In our family, it was my 57-year-old father. He was hospitalized for 60 days and on a ventilator for 9. He’s lost 45 pounds and has been through hell. He’s home now but still requires oxygen and lots of care. It’s going to be a long time before he is back on track.
I blame myself EVERY SINGLE DAY. And I should. I am responsible for this. I can’t change anything for my family now, but maybe I can for yours. That’s why I started telling my story. Everything is so polarized around this virus and I now realize how dangerous that is. My political views kept me from seeing the truth about the public health risk of COVID, and my family paid a terrible price for my mistake. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.
It’s not just about the health impacts. Don’t get me wrong. They are terrible. Nearly 2 months later, I’m still not back to normal. I lost 30 pounds in the hospital and just don’t have the physical abilities or strength I used to. I can run, but it is hard to breathe and there’s now scarring on my lungs. Mentally there’s still a toll too. I nearly died and came back from that, and it’s not normal. I still wake up in the middle of the night startled, wondering if I can breathe.
But as awful as this has been on my own health, the guilt I feel about what I’ve done to others is far worse. My experience was horrible — it truly was. But what I’m having the most trouble with is what I did to my family. I jeopardized each and every one of their lives. I almost killed my Dad, and who knows how many other people I exposed to the virus. I was out partying right up until the time I got sick.
My story has changed the minds of a lot of my conservative friends, and if you’re a doubter, I hope it changes yours too. Look: Just wear the mask. There’s no point arguing how much risk it reduces. If it reduces ANY risk, it is worth the minor inconvenience of a piece of fabric on your face. In case you’re wondering, I am still conservative and a supporter of President Trump, but I do think the rhetoric needs to change. This virus and the decisions we make about it don’t just impact us. It’s really about all the other people we put at risk with our bad, selfish decisions.
I blame myself every single day for what I’ve done to my family, and I’d give anything to go back and do things differently. Unfortunately, I don’t have that chance. But you do. So act wisely and do the right thing.
Wear the mask.
Wash your hands.
Don’t go to parties.
Take this virus seriously.
Not doing these things not only puts your own life at risk, it also means you could potentially hurt others including those you love. And trust me, if you do end up surviving the virus, that is a realization that is painfully hard to live with.
Jaime Martinez was born and raised in Southern California. He is a combat veteran with tours in Iraq and works in the fitness industry.