It was supposed to be a time for catching up on everything Mike Dean, 37, of Albany missed out on during the pandemic.
There was the family vacation to Hawaii that had been rescheduled twice.
There was the Garth Brooks concert in Las Vegas, which had been postponed in 2020.
It felt so good to be doing what he loved.
Plus, there was the anticipation of the arrival of his third child, a boy, in September of 2021.
When the COVID-19 vaccine became available, Mike didn’t get vaccinated because it didn’t seem to him that young and healthy people were getting severely sick. And if he did get sick, he didn’t think it would be that bad.
It’s a decision he was fortunate enough to live to regret.
Mike survived a life-threatening case of COVID-19 last summer. He spent 35 days at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis. Some people, even close friends, still don’t believe how sick he was.
“They thought I was taking it easy, watching movies with an oxygen mask,” Mike said.
In fact, he was struggling for each breath until he couldn’t breathe on his own.
“It felt like I was endlessly drowning,” Mike recalled.
Just weeks before, he was on vacation in Hawaii, snorkeling and splashing in the ocean waves with his wife, Tory Dean, and their sons, Marcus, 6, and James, 9. Then he traveled to the concert in Las Vegas.
He felt tired when he got back from Las Vegas but chalked it up to a long weekend. By day three, he was exhausted and had a low-grade fever. He called in sick to work and his employer asked him to get tested for COVID-19. When the result was positive, Mike figured he would quarantine at home and stay away from his family.
By day five, he had shortness of breath, a high fever and chills.
“I was in sweats in July,” he said. “I couldn’t get warm.”
When he stood to walk to the bathroom, he collapsed. His lungs felt like he had run a marathon.Mike called his doctor, who urged him to go to the emergency department for treatment. As he left home, he had to sit at the bottom of his front steps to catch his breath.
At the hospital, there wasn’t anything they could do except to advise him to continue monitoring his oxygen level.
“Unfortunately, the path that you’re headed down, you’ll be back,” emergency department physician Peter Gowing, DO, said. “I hope you’re not, but most likely you will be.”
The prediction gave Mike an eerie feeling. And the next day, his oxygen level dropped significantly. When he left for the hospital this time, he had to sit and slide down the front steps one at a time.
Mike was hospitalized on July 21. He received high-flow oxygen and medicine to calm him and treat “air hunger.”
“It’s like you’re starving for your breath,” he said. “It feels like you are gasping for air. It’s terrifying, so you start to panic.”
Ten days after his symptoms began, Mike consented to being placed on a ventilator. He remembers being in intensive care, surrounded by his care team.
“How much of this do you want to remember?” he was asked.
“I don’t want to remember any of it,” Mike replied.
The anesthesiologist looked him in the eye. “This is going to hurt,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Mike remembers calling out in pain. Then he was out.
When he came off the ventilator, Mike wondered why he wasn’t feeling better.
“I thought this was going to be over,” he said.
Each morning, Hospitalist Bruce Ramsey, MD, greeted him.
“Mike, this is an inch a day scenario. You’re getting better inch by inch,” Dr. Ramsey said.
Mike had developed pneumonia. Then his oxygen levels dropped again. Respiratory Therapist Robert Sherwood brought in a BiPap machine to help push air into his lungs through a mask connected to a ventilator.
“If we don’t get your lungs inflated, you could spend the rest of your life on oxygen,” Sherwood said. “You are too young for that.”
When a nurse told Mike that he had been in the hospital three weeks, he was shocked.
“I thought about my pregnant wife and my kids,” he said.
Tory Dean, now eight months pregnant, was having complications. They kept in touch by video chat. It was hard to speak because he ran out of breath.
“I couldn’t talk to my kids,” he said. “I would send videos and try to stage it to where I wasn’t looking so terrible.”
Mike lost 31 pounds. Occupational therapy brought in a step for him to practice until he was confident that he could make it up 15 stairs to his bedroom at home.
On Aug. 24, he was discharged. About 30 care team members assembled at the exit, clapping as he passed by in a wheelchair.
At home, neighbors helped take him upstairs. When the boys came home the next day, he was sitting up in bed ready to hug them.
“They came running to me,” he said. “I just sat there and cried.”
Four weeks later, he was back at hospital for the birth of his youngest son, Hayes.
Precious moments like holding his newborn are something Mike does not take for granted.
While he recovered, his grandmother, who has congestive heart failure, had to spend the night in the emergency department because there were no hospital beds available.
“They were all taken by unvaccinated people with COVID, like me,” Mike said.
Mike followed his doctor’s guidance and received the COVID vaccine to help him recover from lingering symptoms and protect him from getting sick again.
He respects people’s right to decide if the vaccine is right for them based on their personal circumstances. In hindsight, he wishes he was not so dismissive about the disease or the vaccine.
“I wish everyone would get vaccinated if they can,” he said. “Maybe the vaccine would have kept me out of the hospital for 35 days. Maybe it would have kept me from having to go in the hospital, kept me from getting sick.
“It’s a decision I regret.”
See more pictures of Mike and his family.