Larry Brown, 45, watches his daughter play soccer in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings)
Larry Brown spent about 80 days in an Indianapolis hospital in the spring, battling COVID-19 and nearly died. His journey since he returned home in June has been full of unknowns. You are still not sure when you will return to work or if problems that still persist, such as tingling in most of your fingers, will go away.
Brown, a former Indiana State football player, was on a respirator for 37 days. The nurses periodically helped him onto his stomach to help him breathe. The 45-year-old Brown's lungs were filling with fluid and doctors did not expect him to survive .
Since no visits were allowed in the intensive care unit, a nurse helped him to place a phone next to his ear.
“Thanks for fighting so hard, Larry,” his sister-in-law, Ellie Brown, told him. He was careful not to say goodbye. That might scare you.
However, Brown's health rapidly deteriorated. His family feared losing him, but he did not give up. “People weren't ready to go there,” Ellie Brown said of a wake. Turns out Larry doesn't either.
After that phone call, Brown slowly got better. He remained on the ventilator for almost two more weeks, for a total of about 50 days . Then Brown had to come out of a medically induced coma, but that was only the beginning of his recovery.
The end of a rehabilitation that has already lasted for months is not in sight. His hands, which made him the eighth all-time leading receiver for the Indiana State team, can't even open a can of soda. Brown did not die from the virus, but his life may never be the same again.
Like millions of COVID-19 cases, Brown's had started with minor symptoms. He didn't have a cough like many coronavirus patients, but he lost his appetite . The 5-foot-9, 240-pound man knew that was a sign. On March 25, Brown was exhausted and called his mother for help. Marilyn Brown dialed 911 and an ambulance took her son to the hospital.
Brown improved his mood at the prospect of receiving medical help. As he rested in his room watching television, he thought he would only stay a few days.
Soon, however, he was moved to another room; he wasn't sure why. It's the last thing he really remembers.
At that time, people in the United States were just getting acquainted with the new disease. Businesses were beginning to close, but only until the country could flatten the case curve, almost everyone believed. And most of the cases weren't serious, authorities said .
Doctors transferred Brown to the intensive care unit and put him on a respirator while they tried to figure out how to treat him. They put him in a medically induced coma and hooked him up to a machine that did the work of his lungs, transferring oxygen to his blood.
When April ended, Brown's health was deteriorating. A dangerous MRSA infection (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Infection) has occurred. Despite the no visitors rule, staff feared Brown was short on time and let his mother and one of his daughters see him.
Brown would later not remember that emotional visit or the phone call from his sister-in-law. He says those weeks seem like a black hole, wasted time where all he remembers are nightmares: he dreamed that he was in a different hospital and that the staff wanted to kill him.
Doctors are not sure why Brown began to improve. Perhaps the ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine saved your life. An antibiotic adjustment may also have helped.
Whatever the reason, Brown woke up on May 10, the day before his 46th birthday .
Brown couldn't walk or speak. He could barely scribble. Rehabilitation at the hospital began immediately. He had to strengthen his legs to stand up, then try to take a few steps and climb some stairs . Getting to the top felt like climbing Mount Everest.
The work made him suffer and reminded him of football training ground, but that pain faded as his legs recovered.
On June 12, he left the hospital, passing a group of employees who applauded him, but entering a strange world. He realized then that wherever he went, people wore masks . Businesses closed early if they did open. The prices of groceries had risen. The stores had new access guidelines.
Life became a great list of unknowns.
You don't know how you got COVID-19.
He does not know if the tingling sensation in all his fingers except the pinkies will go away, and if he will be able to type again without a throbbing pain.
You don't know when you'll be able to return to your job as a business analyst for Anthem.
He does not know if he will play basketball with his children again or if he will live with a permanent disability.
Doctors say they are still finding out how sick people who spent weeks sedated in hospitals on ventilators recover. Doctors believe that some may never fully recover.
Exactly how many patients like Brown there are is unknown, but thousands have taken to social media for advice and informal help .
“Right now, I'm trying to understand the new normal,” Brown said, wearing a blue and white “COVID-19 survivor” T-shirt while speaking to The Associated Press at home and with his family.
He says he is lucky to be alive, but believes he is in 40% of his pre-coronavirus self .
Brown's doctors also have unanswered questions. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected black people like Brown, what role could that have played? Brown is not diabetic and does not smoke. Why did his case get so bad? Why did it become what some call a “COVID carrier”?
Brown isn't sure how far his recovery will take him. His children laughed and banged on the upstairs floor as he searched for the exact words .
“My expectations are … they are, I don't know,” he said, looking down briefly. “I have not set the bar high and I have not set the bar low. I just accept … moving forward. “