DOUGLAS — Martin Harris prides himself on being a healthy guy. He works hard and takes care of himself, knowing in the back of his mind what could await his future at any second. He has a family history of heart problems, including two uncles who died at an early age from widow makers.
“I had spent decades preparing for this possibility,” Martin admits. “Wearing a fitness tracker to monitor my heart rate, I would compete in endurance events like triathlons and ultra marathons.
“Having never smoked a cigarette or taken a single alcoholic drink, I laid the ground work to be the guy who could survive a massive heart attack.”
So late in the night on Dec. 22 he was feeling restless in bed and couldn’t get comfortable, he tossed and turned when suddenly he had the urge to vomit.
“I got up, took two steps toward the bathroom and felt the world go gray.”
He called out for his wife as he hit the floor, sure he was having a heart attack. He wasn’t. It turned out to be worse.
Surviving COVID-19 a second time would be a much bigger challenge. Two months earlier he’d lost his sense of taste and smell, and had tested positive for antibodies, but he’d recovered quickly and easily . . . no big deal. That was the first round.
This time, the ravages of COVID-19 took their toll on him. Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost a year ago, COVID-19 has been labeled a novel virus, mainly because this is the first appearance of the virus, but also because each day scientists are learning new information about how the virus behaves and how each person will experience different symptoms.
Martin’s symptoms mimicked a sudden heart attack – “I could not feel a pulse in my wrist. I was drenched in cold sweat and was breathing shallow” – except for the expected pain on his left side. He was in and out of consciousness while the ambulance crew raced him to Memorial Hospital of Converse County.
“I was told my blood pressure was 60/40 and my pulse was in the 40s. I passed an EKG, an ultrasound showed my heart under stress, but the muscles weren’t malfunctioning,” he recalls now, just weeks later.
Several more tests and scans were performed but the medical team still couldn’t find any signs of a heart attack. He also passed a second EKG.
“Any time my blood pressure dropped below 60, I would throw up violently. They had me on oxygen but nothing was helping my blood pressure.”
Martin was taken to another hospital where he passed his third EKG, but an ultrasound confirmed that he had lost 46% of efficiency in his heart.
“Everyone seemed certain that I was having a cardiac event.”
He was sure, too. After all, he’d expected it.
A fourth EKG and a heart catheterization showed that Martin’s arteries were nearly perfect.
“My heart isn’t the problem, so what is it?”
He was moved to the intensive care unit where teams of doctors put their heads together to solve the mystery.
“I had a little bit of abdominal pain, so the gall bladder became the next suspect,” he remembers.
An ultrasound showed that the gall bladder was inflamed and hardened and appeared to be septic. It was dumping bacteria into his abdomen which caused his blood vessels to dilate.
Finally, “answers” eased his mind for the moment. Surgery was scheduled for 28 hours later.
“Dr. Elbogen at Wyoming Medical Center was trying to piece my puzzle together, and he couldn’t get the pieces to fit,” Martin remembers. “Why would a guy as healthy as me have a septic gall bladder with no gall stones? It was an anomaly. I had no markers for gall bladder failure. He wouldn’t accept that my gall bladder would go septic without cause.”
Harris had two negative tests for COVID-19 already and had the previous positive, so the virus was not at the top of the list for causes.
“During the previous week I had a few abdominal pains and some stiffness in my back but nothing I would consider a respiratory virus,” he said. “No fever, no cough, no headaches, no sinus pain, so it couldn’t be COVID, could it?”
There had been one other case of COVID gall bladder sepsis that had occurred at WMC and a few other cases around the country have also been documented. A third COVID test was ordered, the most painful one yet.
“Keep in mind, I get dental fillings done without anesthetic, and I performed my own hangnail surgery in the garage with a utility knife and rubber band. I knew how to think my way through pain, but this was something else.”
This time, the test came back positive. With an answer in hand, doctors altered his course of treatment.
“The doctor added COVID treatments to my antibiotic regimen and over the next 30 hours I improved remarkably. My oxygen (supplement) was slowly reduced until I no longer needed it. Blood pressure slowly improved to 90/50 and oxygen saturation on room air was staying above 89 unless I was sleeping on my side. Pain in my abdomen improved. I was on a wireless ECG and my heart’s electrical pulses continued to look great.”
After a few days of pain and uncertainty, Christmas Day came with a present. Martin was moved from ICU to the COVID unit. He endured countless rounds of antibiotics, fevers and shots of an anticoagulant in his stomach every 12 hours.
The abdominal pain was making him nauseous, and one doctor suggested walking to prevent blood clots. “Now you’re talking my language,” he joked at the time. “Give me permission to walk and I’ll be the best at it, you watch.”
Once Martin started walking, his body started to heal. After 12 days in the hospital, away from his family over Christmas, he was discharged.
“My recovery is going slowly. I am recovering from three major events so I suppose I should be patient. For all intents and purposes, I am recovering from a heart attack. It will take time for the heart to regain its efficiency. I need to be patient with it.
“I am recovering from sepsis, and I am told that in itself is a major health event that will take a long time to heal. My gall bladder is doing pretty well. I have no pain but I don’t think it’s 100% yet either. And I am recovering from COVID-19,” he said. “I’m sure this affected my lungs. I could feel the stiffness in my lungs for the first three days of hospitalization. I performed deep breathing exercises to stretch the alveoli and hopefully retain their full capacity long-term.”
Martin’s wife, Julene, is hoping that others read or hear about his experience with the novel coronavirus with others.
“We want to share his unique experience in hopes that what we have learned will benefit others,” she said. “We still have so much to learn about the long term impact of COVID. I never thought it would hit this close to home for us.”