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COVID-19 packed a punch, first hospital patient says

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ANGIER — COVID-19 did a number on Linwood Sanders.

The Johnston County man figures that’s partly because he waited to seek treatment. “Before I went to a hospital, I’d already had it about a week and a half,” Sanders said in a recent interview.

Then again, his symptoms were mild, at least early on, Sanders said. On Tuesday, March 3, he returned from a four-day ski trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. “Wednesday morning, I was fine,” he said. “But by Wednesday evening, I started feeling like I was coming down with a bad cold or the flu.”

Sanders, who lives near McGee’s Crossroads, did what many people with flu-like symptoms do. “You think you’ve got the flu bug, you’re just waiting it out,” he said. “I really had no coughing. I just had a headache and fever.”

Sanders, 49, bought some over-the-counter medication, but that didn’t help. So on March 9, six days after returning from Idaho, he went to the Emergency Department at Johnston Health on N.C. 42 in Clayton. The folks there agreed with his self-diagnosis of the flu bug, so they sent Sanders home with Sudafed and nasal spray, he said.

But two days later, on March 11, Sanders returned to the Emergency Department. “I said, ‘Look, I still feel weak. I don’t feel like I’m getting any better. I haven’t eaten anything in almost a week. I’ve just been drinking fluids,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘I want y’all to test me for the flu, and if I test negative for the flu, I need y’all to check me for the COVID.’ ”

The flu test came back negative, so the Emergency Department tested Sanders for COVID-19. “They said, ‘We’ll let you know something in a couple of days,’ ” he said.

That call came on Saturday, March 14. “They said I had tested positive,” Sanders said.

Protocols for COVID-19 were already in place at the Clayton hospital. “They told me to come up to the emergency room but not to come inside,” Sanders said. “They told me to call them when I got outside.”

“My daughter took me up there because I was so weak,” he said. “I took a shower that morning, and it took me 30 minutes to get dressed because I was so weak.”

Outside the Clayton hospital, “they checked my temperature, and I had fever right on,” Sanders said. “They checked my oxygen, and my oxygen was so low they put me on oxygen in the parking lot and put me on an IV in the parking lot because I was dehydrated.”

Next came a ride to Johnston Health’s Smithfield hospital, where Sanders would become the first COVID-19 patient the hospital treated. “When they took me to Smithfield, they got me in and hooked me up to antibiotics,” he said.

Almost immediately, he began feeling better, Sanders said. “Once I got to the hospital, it seemed like I was doing great,” he said. “I was telling myself, ‘I’ll be out of here in a day or two.’ ”

But on March 17, an MRI of his lungs delivered bad news, Sanders said. “They said, ‘Your lungs are in bad shape,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to have to intubate you.’ ”

“That means they put me out, and they get me on this machine and it shakes me,” Sanders said. “It shakes you to break up that stuff on the lungs, and they got a tube in my mouth sucking that stuff off my lungs.”

In all, Sanders was in a medically induced coma for nine days. “In those nine days, I done some dreaming, boy,” he said.

“When I woke up that ninth day ... I’m thinking they just put me out that Tuesday, one day,” Sanders said. “But they said, ‘No, you’ve been out nine days.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ ”

The good news was that Sanders felt fine after waking from his coma, and a test for COVID-19 was negative. The bad news was that nine days in a coma weakened his muscles.

“I could not walk; I couldn’t even feed my self the first day,” Sanders said. “They had to put the drink to my mouth because I had no strength in my arms. I would knock over a cup trying to grab it with my hand because my hands were shaking so much. They fed me like a baby.”

But physical therapy went well, and on March 31, Sanders left the hospital after a 17-day stay.

“I feel great,” he said, adding that he was near 100 percent. “I’ve just got to get the strength back in my arms.”

Sanders is a small-business owner — he has a barbershop in Dunn and a trucking company he runs out of his home — so he has felt the sting of the lockdown of North Carolina’s economy. Still, he thinks the governor made the right call.

“I’d rather have my life than money,” Sanders said. “And I’d rather my barbers have their lives than money. I just want everybody to be safe.”