Thomas Kearl is cheered on as he leaves Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Tuesday. After 223 days in the hospital with COVID-19, the Salt Lake man credits his faith, family and health care workers for helping him finally return home. (Intermountain Healthcare)
SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine spending day upon day, then week after week in a hospital hooked up to machines —unable to eat, drink, or use the restroom on your own as you wonder if that will be your last experience and memorize each of the cold, sterile room’s 55 ceiling tiles.
“I didn’t taste water — I didn’t taste anything for seven months — and it was very, very difficult. I’ve heard stories where hospital food is terrible. Listen. I had mashed potatoes, my first food except for Jell-O and pudding, and those mashed potatoes at the hospital, man, they were magnificent,” Thomas Kearl said, becoming emotional as he recalled once being told he might not be able to eat or drink normally ever again.
Kearl, 59, fought to survive COVID-19 in a hospital for 223 days before he was finally able to return home last week to his wife, family and grandchildren — as well as a community cheering him on.
Early in January, the Salt Lake man returned home from a “wonderful” trip to Arizona where he spent time with his children and grandchildren on New Year’s Eve and saw his son get engaged.
But his daughter soon learned that a friend she spent time with before the trip had tested positive for COVID-19.
The Kearl family got tested for the disease — 10 out of 12 tested positive in the days before vaccines were available to most residents.
Thom Kearl initially tested negative. But within a few days, he had a 105-degree fever and his wife and son rushed him to the hospital.
Thus began the most painful eight months he’s ever experienced, as he almost lost his life several times. He says he had no underlying health conditions that made him more susceptible to the novel coronavirus.
Kearl can’t remember very well all those months in and out of a coma, but he does recall the pain and discomfort — including lying in a “tray” surrounded by ice. He went on to get numerous complications and infections related to COVID-19.
But Kearl says his faith, family and the care of hospital workers helped him survive.
“And through the process, the nurses and my family told me that I coded out, and that’s code language for: I died. I didn’t want to die. I have too much to live for.
“I love my family, I love my children, I love my three grandkids. So I kept fighting, and thanks to the skill, the education, training of the wonderful health professionals, they brought me back,” Kearl said Thursday, just over a week after returning home from Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.
He said he had “incredible” spiritual experiences that he describes as being “on the other side of the veil.”
“And it gave me the courage to keep fighting,” Kearl said.
At one point, doctors gave him multiple treatment options. One would simply make him more comfortable and allow him to “pass in peace.” The other one would require him to have another tracheostomy tube put in — his only hope to survive. But that also carried risk, and intense pain.
He chose the second option.
“I remember one night being afraid to close my eyes because I wouldn’t make it. But I believe in prayer to a great extent, and I prayed myself for comfort, and I was able to get comfort to sleep. But I can’t say enough, I have a guardian angel. I had a lot of guardian angels,” Kearl said.
One of his doctors at Intermountain, Dr. Peter Crossno, described recoveries like Kearl’s as “really heartening.”
He said he got to know “Thom” through his family and learned he was an incredible singer, and they were worried about him getting his voice back.
When Crossno first started treating Kearl, he was critically ill. But as he regained some of his consciousness and voice, “I got to meet a guy who was extremely invested in taking care of himself.”
He wanted to “put his all in to get better,” Crossno recalled.
The doctor called Kearl’s case unusual and his length of stay in the hospital “incredibly long.” He said it’s the longest period he can recall a patient spending in the intensive care unit. The mortality rate also tends to be high when any patient gets intubated, as Kearl did, Crossno said.
And when Kearl first entered the hospital, family members weren’t able to visit and speak with health care workers in person — a vital way that doctors and nurses learn about and connect with their patients.
Now, Kearl faces a difficult recovery — including dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by his experience. But it’s a recovery he says he’s grateful to embark on.
One of his physical therapists, Dr. John Frampton, said he will need three hours of physician therapy six days each week to learn how to move again. But making it home is a victory in and of itself.
“That’s one of the bright spots of being in rehab, is taking people at some of these low points and being able to work with them and see some of these victories where they can actually get home and get better,” Frampton said.
Kearl does miss his new “extended family” at the hospital, whom he came to love.
“But there’s no place like home, as Dorothy would say in ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” he said.
Kearl says he once doubted the seriousness of the pandemic and decried its effect on businesses.
“Lives have been ruined. And I thought COVID was a flu that they just destroyed the world over. And boy, was I wrong. Not only is it real, but it’s a plague,” Kearl said.
“I’ve never heard of somebody surviving eight months in a hospital and being able to walk out of there with a walker. I immediately asked Dr. Frampton, I’ve asked every doctor, ‘Do I need to get the vaccination?’ And they all said, ‘Yes.’ So I made sure that I went and got the vaccination two weeks before I got out of there,'” he added.
The vaccine made him sick for two days, he added, “but it was nothing compared to the violent pain and sickness that I experienced.”
He has one plea for others:
“Get vaccinated. Use me as the example of what can happen, because it was awful.”
His voice broke as he explained he had help from this and the “other side” on more than one occasion. He thanked health care workers, the community who rallied around him, and his family for their prayers and support.
“Thank you to my family, especially my wife. The difficult situation she’s been through is unspeakable. It was probably harder on her than the disease was on me — imagine seeing your husband die. She saw me die,” Kearl said.
But he says being able to again sleep next to his wife in his own comfortable bed is the “healing I needed.”
New Utah cases
On Thursday, Utah health officials reported 1,687 new coronavirus cases and 12 additional deaths.
School-age children represented 413 of the latest cases — 162 cases are ages 5-10, 119 cases are ages 11-13, and 132 are 14-18.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 1,317 per day, and the rolling percent positivity rate of those tested is 14.1%. Hospitalizations in Utah stand at 498, 182 of whom are in ICUs.
Health care workers administered 8,876 vaccines since Wednesday’s report, bringing total vaccinations given in the state to 3,272,733.
In the last 28 days, people who are unvaccinated are at 4.8 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 5.3 times greater risk of being hospitalized due to COVID-19, and five times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people.
Since Feb. 1, people who are unvaccinated are at 5.8 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 5.3 times greater risk of being hospitalized due to COVID-19, and 4.7 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people.
Breakthrough cases among those who have been fully vaccinated stand at 10,915, 602 breakthrough cases have required hospitalization, and 56 fully vaccinated people have died in Utah. Of those fully vaccinated, 0.70943% have gotten the disease, 0.03913% have been hospitalized, and 0.00364% have died, according to state health department data.
The latest COVID-19 deaths:
- A Salt Lake County girl between 15 and 17 years old who was hospitalized when she died. A county health official confirmed the teen was not vaccinated and had no underlying conditions.
- Two Salt Lake County women, between 45 and 64, who were both hospitalized when they died.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Tooele County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- Two Utah County men, 45-64, both hospitalized.
- A Utah County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Utah County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Washington County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Weber County man, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Weber County man, 45-64, hospitalized.