“Your Test Came Back Positive.”
The doctor cracked the curtain where I was sitting in the ER to deliver the news. I was stunned. I was deadpanned. How quickly things had changed.
One week prior on Father’s Day I saw my son walk out of the same ER after he had been told he was positive. He had been working with some youth with their meal and summer programs and had been exposed from another adult. I’ll never forget the look on his face after he’d been told the news. Never.
I broke all protocol and hugged him. I hugged him again when we got back to the house. I didn’t care. I had already been exposed and the last thing I wanted him to feel was that he was “untouchable.”
- The next day I went in for a test. I tested negative (6/22/20). Whew!
- One week later, I tested positive (6/27/20). That’s okay… I’m strong and will get through a rough couple days.
- One week later while while sitting in my hospital room on the 5th floor, fighting to breathe and weakening quickly, I tested positive again (7/3/20). Fear now had a strong grip on me.
- One month and one day from my first positive, I tested negative (7/28/20). The journey to recover was not over, but I was overwhelmed with the good news!
Reminds me of the title of Bilbo Baggins’ book – “There and Back Again – A Hobbit’s Tale” – “There and Back Again – My COVID-19 Story.”
It was a journey… one I never expected to be on… and one I never want to go on again, or see anyone in my family or any more of my friends go on.
Admitted To The Hospital
I went to the emergency room on Saturday, June 27 to get IV fluids. I had a pretty severe case of heat exhaustion from the previous 3 days with my job, working outside in the Texas summer sun. I was dehydrated and running a fever. While hooked up to the IV, they tested me for COVID… positive. Ugh!
I went home and the over next several days I continued to decline. Fever. Dehydration. Shortness of breath. Getting weaker and weaker. Traci was getting quite concerned (and so was I). So on Friday, July 3rd, we went to the ER again. My toes were turning purple (yikes!) from lack of oxygen to my extremities.
I really don’t remember any of the 6 days between when I first tested positive until I went to the hospital. It was really a blur of declining vitals. I was moving in the wrong direction in a hurry. What I didn’t know was that my lungs were rapidly filling with fluid, in addition to the dehydration, fever, weakness, etc.
In complete denial, I fully expected to get some more IV fluids, have the doc give me some “magic pill,” and send me home. After chest x-rays, several tests, IV fluids, etc, the doctor came in and said I was being admitted.
“I’m Rich Niccolls. I am strong and I don’t get sick.” — at least that’s what I thought in my head.
I was concerned with my pride. The doctor was concerned with my life.
The doctor didn’t give a crap about who I thought I was. She was seeing someone else. My oxygen levels were so low that I couldn’t breathe on my own. The doctor told me that if I had waited 24 more hours to come into the ER, she would be sending me straight to the ICU. She told me that was still a possibility if things didn’t improve over the next couple days.
“Couple days!” Did the doctor think I was going to be here more than overnight? I was devastated. My mind began racing in slow motion. Everyone knows what this virus is capable of. Because of the hospital COVID policies, Traci could not be with me. It had only been about 4 hours since I left Traci in the ER waiting room, but I was quickly feeling isolated and alone. For the next 90 minutes I sat there, alone in the ER, waiting to be taken up to my room.
Fear Takes Hold
I was finally taken up to room 5002 at Mansfield Methodist Hospital. It was about 9pm. I climbed into the bed. It was dark in my room. I didn’t know where the light switches were, and with all the tubes in my arm and the oxygen in my nose, I didn’t want to get up.
As I sat there in the darkness, fear began to take hold of me. I thought of all the stories, deaths, ventilators, and I was now isolated from my family. I had this oxygen blowing into my nostrils like a hurricane. What was going to happen?
The phone rang. Word had reached the hospital admin department that they had a new guest on the 5th floor that didn’t look good. It was a woman who had some questions to ask:
- “Do you have a health directive?”
- “Do you have a will?”
- “Are your affairs in order?”
- “If you croak tonight, will your wife and kids have access to the life insurance policy?”
Well… I don’t remember exactly all the questions she asked, but it had a lot to do with slipping much further in the wrong direction, death, and dying.
Fear tightened its grip.
Then… the door opened up. It was my nurse. She had the energy and enthusiasm of a high school girl who had just downed a Red Bull. She was the complete opposite of how I felt at that moment. Over the next 60 minutes she began to explain to me what was going to happen, how I was going to be cared for, the medical plan for me to get back on my feet, the great doctors, and that she, Nicole, was going to take very good care of me.
She gave me some Tylenol for my headache, which I immediately threw back up. I hadn’t vomited in years! I sounded like a wounded T-Rex as I threw up a second time. Nicole didn’t flinch or miss a beat. Unphased by my Jurassic episode, she quickly put some Zofran in my IV line. Vomiting stopped.
Nicole was my night nurse for the first 3 nights. I owe so much to her. She was a God-send and truly helped dispel the fear that had been stirring in my mind. She came in and watched the fireworks with me for a bit on July 4th. I had a great view to the west and was able to see fireworks for about 2 hours. Nicole checked in with me often and made sure all was well. We chatted over those 3 days. She has a child about my son’s age. Her energy was contagious.
Nicole’s daytime nurse counterpart was a man named Bourne. What a great name! He was the complete opposite of Nicole. Not petite, very stoic and quiet. But, he had a heart as big as Nicole’s. Bourne was the kind of guy you can trust, lean on, count on, and you knew you were in good hands. He is VERY good and thorough at his job. Even when he was assigned to other patients, he popped his head in the door to make sure I was doing well and if I needed anything. Bourne was pure gold!
Without Nicole and Bourne, I don’t know where I would have been. I typically distrust medical staff. I know their job is hard. I know the stress of this COVID pandemic is difficult. But these 2 nurses took excellent care of me and I will be forever grateful. Maybe I’ll name my next two kids after them.
I was admitted on a Friday. Over the weekend I feel like I had reached as low as I was going to go and that I was in a position to begin improving. My vitals were still not impressive. Chest x-rays still showed fluid. My oxygen levels were about 88-90% (a slight improvement from when I was in the ER).
I was on a medication called Remdesivir. I received 2 units of plasma from patients who were now negative and had COVID antibodies to help my body fight. I was on steroids. I received an injection in the stomach every morning at 6am to prevent blood clotting. I was on a Combivent inhaler for my lungs. I was on an Avelox antibiotic. I received a few supplements for my stomach and zinc. Blood drawn nightly at 3am. Vitals done every 4 hours around the clock. Medications, IV bag changes, pills, nurses, multiple doctors, x-ray technicians, respiratory therapists, care techs, cleaning crews and whoever else in and out around the clock. I’m almost positive a couple Mormons even knocked on my door.
I didn’t mind. They were doing a hard job and I did everything I could to let them know I appreciated them and thanked them, no matter how many times they came in and out of my room. The only thing I asked was that they not use tape to hold the cotton ball down after they drew blood. Ripping the tape off the hair on my arm was probably the hardest part of my experience in the hospital.
The respiratory therapists would visit me twice daily and were not impressed with my breathing. They gave me a breathing toy to play with called a “Spirometer.” They told me to inhale on the tube and it would measure the strength of my lungs.
My nurse came in and told me he wanted me to hit 2,000. I did it with all my lung strength and barely hit 500.
2,000!! Are you crazy?! Bourne told me I could do it.
Something Woke Up Within Me
I had a view of the parking lot from my 5th floor window, and every day Traci would come visit me and bring me a Smoothie King, which the staff would deliver to my room. We would talk on the phone while she stood below. Leah, Lauren, Mason, and Josh would come by and visit as well. Those visits were everything to me!
Talking wasn’t easy. Talking requires breath. Many times my mouth would open, but words would remain in my throat because I didn’t have the breath in my lungs to express them. Sometimes it would begin to flow which would later result in coughing fits.
It was now Monday evening and Traci had just left as she talked with me 5 stories below. I knew I had to do something and get things moving in the right direction. I had to give my family hope. I had to find some courage. By the end of that Monday, I was hitting about 1,000 on the spirometer.
I texted Traci at 10:09pm that Monday and I told her I was going to turn a corner. I was ready to train. I told her that July 7th (7/7) was going to be a day of hope and progress.
Tuesday morning I got out of bed and took a shower and shaved. That was a HUGE struggle. I was still on 5 liters of oxygen and showering and shaving was an incredible drain of energy. But, it was time to push through. I got dressed and went to my closet and laced up my running shoes.
About that time my nurse came in and asked what the shoes were for. I told her that you can’t train while your shoes are in the closet. Today I needed to train. I was going to hit the breathing spirometer and move around my room. As the day went on, I was hitting 1,500 – 1,750. I was on the move. As the care tech took my oxygen levels throughout the day, I was hitting 92%, then 93%, and finally 94%. It was incredible progress!
As Tuesday evening hit, I was whooped and exhausted. I felt like I had done a marathon in my room. Traci, Josh and Leah had come to wave at me through the window and chat on the phone. I was still struggling to talk, but I was anxious to share my progress.
Wednesday, I was worn out. I didn’t have the energy to do much on Wednesday, but I was able to get the spirometer to 2,000! They decreased my oxygen to 4 Liters… I was moving in the right direction.
Now the nurse said let’s hit 3,000 on my breathing toy. Mason and Lauren stopped by to wave and chat 5 stories below. That, and Traci’s daily visit gave me the energy to lace em up again on Thursday.
Momentum was continuing. My oxygen levels were hitting between 94-96% (almost normal). I kept pushing myself. I told the RT I wanted my oxygen down to 2 Liters. I felt no ill effects and my oxygen levels were holding steady.
On Friday they said I was ready for the “6-minute test.” To get ready for that, they began removing the oxygen out of my nose for 30-90 minutes at a time. They bumped me down to 1 Liter of oxygen.
That afternoon, Lily, the best care tech in Dallas, came in and removed the oxygen from my nose. I walked around the room for 6 minutes, breathing on my own, and then testing my vitals after 2 minutes of recovery. I was at 95 or 96%. I was gold!
The doctor came in and said it looked like I was going to be discharged on Saturday. I had recovered to the point I could leave the hospital. Talk over the previous day had been about sending me home with oxygen. But, my numbers were too high and there wasn’t a need to take home supplemental oxygen.
Saturday came… the nurse brought my discharge papers, ripped the tape off my arm and removed the IV. I was heading home!
I saved this section to tell of my doctor, Dr. Lenamond. I cannot begin to express my gratitude from both myself and my wife. She was so gracious and explained everything from the care plan, to daily activities, encouraging me, and doing everything possible to insure I was receiving the best care possible… including my “hip-hop” send off.
She would pull up a chair and chat, being straight with me, and would sit there until she had answered all my questions. She’d sit there while I struggled to catch a breath, cough-cough-cough, and whisper out my question.
Sometimes we would get Traci on speaker phone and Dr. Lenamond would answer her questions too.
Dr. Lenamond carries a lot of weight on her shoulders. Though it felt like I was her only patient, she has patients all over the hospital – many of which were not doing well.
When she entered the room, she brought a lot of hope and encouragement. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a big fan of medical personnel. However, Dr. Lenamond was the quintessential physician that led her team and you knew you could trust her word, her care plan, and that your wellbeing was in excellent hands.
So… on behalf of myself, my wife, and my family… Dr. Lenamond… thank you!!
Dr. Lenamond popped into my hospital room on Saturday morning and asked what kind of music I liked…
She said they were going to send me home with a “clap-off” as I was leaving in an hour or two.
She also asked if she could pray for me before I left. I’ve never had a doctor do that before… a blessing indeed!
I was now packed and ready to go.
Music was thumping on the other side of the door to room 5002. A nurse came in to push my wheel chair. As the door was opened, the music filled my room and the whole nurses’ station was jumping!
Dr. Lenamond was holding the speaker and dancing… and about a dozen others of the health staff were there, clapping, dancing, and shouting… it was time to send Rich home in style!
Lily led the way. Bourne was there. So many others who had come in and out of my room over the previous 8 days were there. My lungs expanded and I began shouting too! The whole 5th floor knew a party was going on! Down the hall. Into the elevator. Into the lobby… and out to the entrance where Traci was waiting.
I hadn’t seen Traci this close in eight days.
Dr. Lenamond finally met Traci, music thumping, and I said thank you, and climbed into Traci’s Toyota and headed home.
The crazy thing about this video… I uploaded another version of it directly to Facebook as soon as I got home from the hospital. Within a couple days it had 3,300 views! I was surprised at how strong my voice was in viewing this again… especially after only being able to cough and whisper a few days prior.
(I also realized my camera work needs improvement).
In the midst of a very tough year, with many of their COVID patients in ICU, I am glad for the 3 minutes this staff had to dance and celebrate… and super glad that I was part of the party!
Reflecting now, I don’t remember there being any other celebrations during my 8 days. Hopefully it’s because I just couldn’t hear them all.
Home and Negative
I was now home. The days and weeks clicked by. My main goal was to keep moving in the right direction. I continued to play with my breathing toy (I really hate that little device). I was hitting 3,750 consistently on the spirometer. I had to stay isolated until I was negative.
I was home, but I was still pretty weak. My energy level was relatively low. It took almost 90 days until I felt like my energy levels returned to normal.
My taste buds were funky. Fruits and veggies were fine, but starchy foods and carbohydrates tasted horrible. Other foods tasted funny. It took about 75 days for my taste to return (it probably would have been better if my taste for carbs hadn’t returned).
I went through a drive-thru COVID test center on July 27th… one month since I had first tested positive. My results came back the next day as negative!
I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had now emerged from the valley of the shadow of death.
I had chest x-rays done that came back clear, and the visit to my personal doctor went well – with my oxygen level at 98%.
Six weeks after testing positive, I returned to work. It would be another 6 weeks until I felt 100%, but they were great to help me ease back into work.
My Hope and My Encouragement
The heart of this coronavirus journey was far more than my determination to get better and an excellent medical staff at Mansfield Methodist Hospital. Ask anyone who has been sick with this thing and they will tell you that it is more than a physical battle. It is an emotional, mental, and spiritual battle as well.
I need to share the heart of this journey in my final thoughts…
As I sat in my hospital room alone, in the dark, about 9pm, that first night on July 3rd – fear swept over me and I felt like I had a 1,000 demons fill the room whispering fear in my ears. Every possible fear seemed to rush in an out of my mind. I was exhausted. I felt lost. I had a fever. My head was pounding. My mind was mush.
It sounds crazy. I’ve never really been afraid of death or dying… but this was something unprecedented in my life.
Tubes attached to my body and a nasal cannula at full force up my nose. Machines beeping. The darkness. The phone rang with the admin asking me those death questions. Fear whispering. Somewhere in this all… a faint voice said:
“it’s your breath, in my lungs.”
I sat there thinking about this when the door burst open and Nicole in all her Red Bull-like energy flipped on a light and all the fear rushed away.
An hour later after Nicole left, the words came back, “it’s your breath, in my lungs…” and I remembered it was a song. I got out my phone and did a Google search and found the YouTube video below. That song became my theme song that I played multiple times a day.
I sang it in my breathless voice, cough-cough, and I kept singing it. I sang it under my breath when I couldn’t make a sound.
Lord, it is your breath that is in my lungs. Fill my lungs with your breath and I will tell your story.
I played it when I got home, and continue to play that song on a regular basis today. It is a reminder of how God took a man who was going downhill quickly, being overrun with fear, spoke to him, surrounded him unexpectedly with a great health team, surrounded him with a huge host of prayer warriors, and restored him to health.
And speaking of prayer warriors… God gave me about a dozen point men and women who got the word out… and in what felt like a 24 hour period, there were some 10,000 people across 5 continents praying for me. My Facebook feed blew up with hundreds of people responding, encouraging me, praying for me, and ushering in hope.
I have to tell you… I was so overwhelmed… speechless, both literally and figuratively. I feel like I barely know 10 people sometimes, but where did these 10,000 people come from? People from coast-to-coast and border-to-border, El Salvador, Russia, Europe, East and West Africa, the Pacific Islands, Australia, all across the U.S. and all around the globe.
Two days after I was admitted, churches were praying for me and individuals were sending me encouraging words and scripture to read. Psalms 23, 34, 91 were ones that were sent to me repeatedly.
“Perfect love drives out fear” – 1 John 4:18
I don’t know where I would be without incredible friends, a relentless loving family, and a God who loved me enough to call my name and fill my lungs with His breath. God is good… and not because He healed me. He would be good even if things had gone south. He is good because that is His nature, whether He answers my prayers the way I ask or not. But… I am grateful for His healing and the people that were a part of my life in 2020!
Three pieces of quick advice when battling this disease that is more important than your determination to get better and having a good doctor:
- Find one or two people to pray for you – for your healing and hope. And don’t stop there. Ask them to ask others to pray for you too. Heck… ask me and I’ll pray for ya!
- Remember who it is who created you and put the breath in your lungs. Sing a song to him… maybe even the same song I did.
- Download the Bible app to your phone and read Psalms 23, 34, and 91. There are many promises in these three short chapters filled with hope.
17Unless the Lord had given me help,
I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death.
18 When I said, “My foot is slipping,”
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
19 When anxiety was great within me,
your consolation brought me joy.
~ Psalm 94
Thanks for sticking with me through these 4,100 words. Some things are not meant to be brief. I am a grateful and happy human.
As Bilbo said, “If ever you are passing my way, don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time.”