Houston Matters

‘I Was Never Sure What Was Going To Happen Next’ — Houston COVID-19 Survivors Recall Their Experiences

From spending 50 days in the hospital, to losing 40 pounds, to flashbacks of childbirth, we hear firsthand accounts of surviving the coronavirus.

Bryan Cruz in the Hospital
Former Houstonian Bryan Cruz survived a bout with COVID-19 in Los Angeles.

Even in the abstract, COVID-19 remains shocking. The number of people who contract the coronavirus, the number who have died – and then, of course, the dramatic economic numbers – millions of newly unemployed, stock markets and oil prices plunging.

But we know it's anything but abstract for people newly out of work, struggling to pay bills, uncertain about their economic future. And we absolutely know it's anything but abstract for health care workers, grocery store clerks – people in all sorts of jobs that, in some cases, maybe never knew how "essential" they were until now.

But, perhaps most of all, there is nothing whatsoever abstract about COVID-19 for people who have it and are recovering from it, as Houston Matters found out firsthand from some current and former Houstonians on Thursday’s show.

As Intense As Giving Birth

Poet and native Houstonian Julia Guez lives in Brooklyn, where she came down with COVID-19 in late March. She says her symptoms started with a tightness in her throat. Eventually, her heart started beating fast and irregularly and, over the course of the ensuing weeks, the pain and discomfort worsened intensely.

"I was achy," Guez told Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty. "There was this tingling through to my chest and solar plexus. There was this tightness. There was this pain. It's hard. It was humbling.

Julia Guez COVID-19 Instagram Post
Poet and Houston native Julia Guez survived a battle with COVID-19 in Brooklyn.

Guez said the experience was a lot like childbirth.

“To the extent that moment by moment, hour by hour, I was never sure what was going to happen next, and I never experienced some of things that were happening to my body,” she said.

And, worst of all, she had to go through the illness essentially by herself.

“I was certainly alone because I was sort of in a quarantine within a quarantine,” Guez said. “All I wanted to do was to hold and be held by my mother, who lives in Houston."

Just When You Think You're Done

Bryan Cruz is a former Houston resident who works in an HIV clinic as a nurse and also as an improv instructor and performer at Second City in Los Angeles.

Cruz lied at a testing site saying he had a fever in order to get tested for COVID-19, a test which eventually came back positive. At the time, many testing sites would only test patients who exhibited a fever along with other symptoms, such as a dry cough, diarrhea, and body aches.

Bryan Cruz Vomit Free Facebook Post
An April 6 Facebook post from Bryan Cruz celebrating a milestone in his COVID-19 recovery.

"Unfortunately, the first and earliest sign was diarrhea," Cruz said. "It smelled differently from what typically you'd get."

During his illness, his wife, Genevieve, attended to him. She’s a pediatric neurology resident at UC Irvine, and some of her nursing friends who work in local hospitals supplied her with IV bags to keep Cruz hydrated.

"I would equate it to running a marathon," Cruz said. "You're just exhausted, and you're sick, and you're feverish at night. And you go in and out of sweats, and on the seventh day you think you're done with all of this. Then it amps up even more.”

Over the next few days, Cruz would often sleep for 19-hour stretches.

“And, when I'd wake, I'd either take my medicine, vomit, or have more diarrhea — and those were the roughest after the seven days,” he said. “You're already exhausted from this marathon, and then you just keep getting sicker. And that was the really weird, intense, and scary part."

A Rip Van Winkle Experience

Phil Eaton is the principal of Lake Creek High School in Montgomery County. He's still recovering from COVID-19 and spoke to Houston Matters with Craig Cohen from TIRR Memorial Hermann, where he’s still a patient.

In early March, Eaton went to an urgent care clinic for what he thought was another one of his occasional sinus infections. He later returned when his condition worsened, and the doctor told him to get to a hospital emergency room.

Eaton was placed on a ventilator for three weeks and was effectively in a coma. He says he lost close to 40 pounds in that time in the intensive care unit.

Phil Eaton Facebook Video
Lake Creek HS Phil Eaton in a Facebook video from his hospital room as he recovered from COVID-19.

"As soon as they took me back to ICU I knew nothing,” Eaton said. “I believe 20 days later...when I did come out of it — it's kind of a Rip Van Winkle kind of experience because I knew nothing."

He couldn’t even answer simple questions.

"The first question that I remember somebody asking me was, ‘Who's the president?'” Eaton said. “And I couldn't answer it.”

On The Other Side

Recovering from the effects of the virus has been slow. All three are still checking with medical staff, but all three have expressed a new appreciation for life — although they still live with concerns for their communities.

Although Guez has gotten through the worst physically, she still worries for New York, which is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of the virus in the country.

"Four or five times an hour every day for the last month — maybe month and a half — there have been sirens outside of my window,” she said. “This city has been hit really hard, and it's really scary here.”

National Poetry Month: "The New Cartography” By Julia Guez

Part of the surreal experience is the sudden resurgence of some sounds of nature — despite being interrupted by those all-too-frequent sirens.

“You can hear birds singing, which is the most beautiful song,” Guez said. “But it is eerie in a city like New York."

Cruz might not have gotten entirely back to his pre-COVID-19 self, but he continues to recover at home with his wife. They’re now quarantined at home and enjoying fried chicken to build back some of Cruz's body weight.

"There's a couple days where you really question if you're going to be okay,” he said. “And what's nice is I came out the other side.”

Eaton continues rehabilitation to recover his physical strength and has been hospitalized for more than 50 days.

Through social media he’s been in communication with teachers, students, and well-wishers. He said their support has greatly helped his recovery.

"Even a big guy like me — it’s easy to tear up sometimes,” he said. “It's pretty emotional, but the response has been overwhelming.”

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