JACKSON — Eighty-eight days.
That’s how long Anthony Parker spent in the hospital.
He first felt sick with symptoms that didn’t mirror a typical cold or flu on March 30.
“The last thing I remember, I drove myself to this hospital,” the 61-year-old Jackson man said, sitting in the shade outside St. John’s Health. “I couldn’t sleep. And I said, ‘Well, I gotta go see what’s wrong.’”
Parker finally left the hospital on June 25, ending a three-month saga with coronavirus in which he was transferred to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center and then back to St. John’s. He spent a month and half in a coma, and battled for his life alone in Idaho Falls, far from family.
The ordeal has left him weakened, struggling with a bevy of problems COVID-19 unleashed on his body. But Parker is finally home and determined to face the long recovery head-on.
“This virus really ruined my life,” he said. “But I’m getting stronger as days go by.”
On April 29, Parker flatlined.
Back in March, after being admitted at St. John’s, he had been transferred to the Idaho Falls hospital, where doctors put him in a medically induced coma. They brought him out of it at the end of April, and for a couple of days he seemed like he might make the turn.
He was even able to talk with his family.
“We were expecting a FaceTime call that day,” his daughter Erica Estrada said. “We didn’t get it, so I told my sister to call and see what’s happening.”
Parker’s heart had stopped. Doctors put him back on the ventilator and started chest compressions, reviving him but inducing a coma again. After thinking he was past the worst of it, his children and wife, who live in California, were plunged back into the pain of waiting.
Parker, however, had no idea.
“I was like, ‘Holy s--t,’” he said of learning his heart had stopped.
After two more weeks in a coma, Parker woke up May 12. That time it stuck, and he slowly began rehab. After he had been in the hospital for six weeks, his wife, Isabel, was able to join him.
“She has been by his bedside since then,” daughter Antoinette Aguilera said in early June after he was transferred back to St. John’s.
In his pre-COVID days Parker was a motorcycle rider. Tattoos wrap around his arms. His daughters say he projected strength; he was a person who might ignore an injury until it went away. He was a family man who moved to Jackson in search of better work to provide for his wife.
Now he’s in a wheelchair, trundling along with an oxygen bottle, the nasal cannula hooked into his nostrils. He speaks slowly, catching his breath between thoughts. His hands shake like he has Parkinson’s, and he can’t open a pop bottle.
The full-body devastation Parker has experienced isn’t unique to him.
“One curious thing about this virus — as opposed to say influenza — is the extraordinary inflammatory response these patients get,” said Dr. Ken Krell, a critical care specialist at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
Rather than the extreme respiratory symptoms usually mentioned when talking about the disease, some COVID-19 patients also experience what’s called a cytokine storm. Cytokines are a part of the body’s normal immune reaction, but COVID-19 can cause the body to release too many at once, triggering a raft of catastrophic symptoms.
Krell couldn’t speak to Parker’s case because of patient privacy laws, but he said the shaky hands are just one of the many symptoms doctors are seeing. COVID-19 can also cause kidney failure, forcing doctors to put patients on continuous renal replacement therapy, a type of 24-hour dialysis that is easier on the heart.
It can also cause blood clotting, leading to a higher likelihood of heart attacks and strokes, even in younger patients who don’t have the traditional risk factors. Extreme reactions to the virus make stories like Parker’s all the more incredible.
As doctors learn more about the virus, they have tried several medications to help patients through the worst of it. President Donald Trump touted hydroxycloroquine for much of the outbreak, even though it has not been proven to have any measurable effect on survival rate or duration of the disease.
Local doctors used it sparingly, under a Food and Drug Administration waiver known as “compassionate use.” Krell said he never used it, but some of his colleagues did.
Remdesivir has shown to be effective, and pharmaceutical company Gilead is ramping up production to sell hundreds of thousands of doses. For Parker, his daughters say he was given an interleukin-6 inhibitor, a drug that quells the cytokine reaction, and while that method has shown promise, it isn’t a sure bet.
“Nobody’s quite certain whether it’s effective or not,” Krell said.
Though it may never be clear which treatments did the trick, some combination of luck, medicine and time worked in Parker’s favor. While still at St. John’s, he was recovered enough by Father’s Day to enjoy it beneath a thick canopy of deciduous trees on the hospital campus. Family, in town for that entire week, crowded around him as he opened presents, sometimes requiring assistance because of the weakness in his hands. His T-shirt, made for the occasion, read “I am stronger than COVID-19.”
The fork shaking as he lifted food to his mouth, he moved determinedly through the feast they brought. His wife kept a hand on his shoulder, and family members huddled close against him, as if they couldn’t believe the moment had come.
Parker recounted that being alone in the Idaho Falls hospital was perhaps the worst part.
“They don’t understand what it takes,” he said. “It takes prayer, medical and family to heal. And they robbed me of my family to heal.”
At the beginning of the outbreak, EIRMC and St. John’s both had no-visitor policies to limit the spread of the virus. The intention was noble, and it helped preserve scarce protective equipment like masks.
Krell acknowledged that the policy, which has now been changed to allow some visitors, was hard on families.
“Given the fact that these patients can’t have visitors, providing care, without the support of families, is very difficult for these patients,” he said.
Parker is relieved to be past that part of his treatment, to have his family close. He is also thankful, he said, for St. John’s. In early June he was denied a rehab program at EIRMC that helps cardiac and stroke patients, even though he had many of the same problems and rehab strategies.
Insurance wouldn’t cover the program unless he had a heart attack or stroke, but Estrada, his daughter, spoke with administrators at St. John’s, who found him a spot in the swing bed program, a Medicare program that lets small, rural hospitals use beds for acute and post-acute patients.
“Their medical staff has actually saved my life,” Parker said of St. John’s.
Even though he has headed home, he has a long road ahead. Beyond the overall weakness and complete lack of lung capacity, he has trouble sleeping, often waking up “startled and gasping for breath.”
He hopes the struggles sleeping subside. Estrada said her dad can be “macho” sometimes and won’t ask for help, but his daughters helped as much as they could while they were here.
When she was visiting at St. John’s, Parker had one of his episodes. He woke up, trying to catch his breath. She tried to coax him back to bed, but even though he was tired, he fought sleep for fear of that feeling.
“I said, ‘Scoot over, I’ll lay next to you. I’m right here,’” she said. “I can’t imagine him having to go through that alone.”
His daughters have since left, but his wife, Isabel, stayed to help with physical therapy and rehab. The family realizes how lucky he is to be alive, and in the week they were here his daughters saw him make immense strides.
They see their father, the motorcycle rider, the provider, and they believe his strength will carry him through the recovery. And they find solace in small accomplishments, marking them as milestones.
“He can say the Pledge of Allegiance without stopping now,” Estrada said. “That was a goal for him.”