Joe Gutierrez hopes sharing his COVID-19 story more widely will help people understand virus' seriousness

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HERMISTON — It took Joe Gutierrez landing in the hospital to make a COVID-19 believer out of some people.

"I can't tell you how many people said, 'I didn't believe it until you got it,'" he said.

BEN LONERGAN/EAST OREGONIAN - Joe Gutierrez, 42, poses for a picture outside of his Hermiston home on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Gutierrez spent 78 days in the hospital due to COVID-19 and continues to undergo therapy as a result of it.Gutierrez, who is 42 and had no underlying conditions, didn't just get COVID-19. He spent 78 days in the hospital because of it. He hopes sharing his story more widely will help people understand that merely talking about "survival rates" doesn't capture the full dangers of the virus.

His journey started on June 2, he said, when he had "a little cough." He had been doing yard work and mowing down different kinds of weeds at his Hermiston home, so he chalked it up to allergies. But the next day, after he arrived at work, he realized he might actually be sick. Luckily, he was already in the habit of wearing a mask and staying six feet apart from others in the building.

"I told one of my coworkers, 'I feel like I can't be here. I need to go get tested,'" he said.

He called around to find a clinic able to test him for COVID-19 that day and drove there. Afterward, he came home and shut himself away from his family, isolating in the master bedroom and bathroom.

He felt "worse and worse," he said. He never had two common symptoms — fever or loss of smell — but he had severe body aches and struggled to breathe, even while using a family member's nebulizer.

On June 5, his test results came back positive. On June 9, his shortness of breath reached a point where he was admitted to Kadlec Medical Center in Richland. Three days later, they moved him to the intensive care unit.

"They said, 'The oxygen on this floor is not enough, we have to move you to the ICU,'" he said. "That definitely got me scared."

On June 14, he called his wife, Lori Gutierrez, to tell her they were going to sedate him and intubate him. Two days later, he was flown to Life Flight to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland to be put on a heart-lung machine known as an ECMO machine. A doctor from Legacy Emanuel told Lori that he had a 40% chance of survival.

She had to help fill in the blanks for him for a while after that, as he was in a medically-induced coma. From her, Joe knows that on June 30 he got a tracheotomy, which doctors did to reduce the chance of infection after being intubated for more than two weeks.

On July 13 he finally tested negative for the first time, and he was removed from the ECMO machine shortly thereafter, allowing him to move to the non-COVID ICU and for Lori to come visit him for the first time. She stayed there from July 17 to when he exited the hospital.

On July 21, the doctors attempted to downsize his tracheotomy tube, and as soon as his old one was removed his heart stopped for 28 minutes.

"I had a team of doctors working to get me back to life, because I was gone," he said.

On Aug. 8, two months after he first checked in to a hospital, he was moved out of the intensive care unit and into occupational therapy he said he was "still kind of in and out of it" at that point, and "dreaming crazy things."

He couldn't talk out loud yet, because of the tracheotomy, and was extremely weak after so many weeks lying in a hospital bed. But nurses who would look at his chart would tell him they couldn't believe he had gone through everything he had and was doing as well as he was.

Joe said his wife was his "rock" through it all, but since he could only have one visitor, he was determined to throw himself into rebuilding his strength to be cleared to return home to see his sons again. On Aug. 18, he was able to have his tracheotomy tube removed and then made it to the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon. He was supposed to spend two weeks there, he said, but was cleared to go home after six days.

Since then, he has been going to Eastern Oregon Physical Therapy three times a week.

"When I came in (to EOPT) I was using a walker," he said. "Now I'm walking upright, walking good. I'm not running yet, but I will get there."

He still has a round, deep scar on his throat, and his voice sounds different from before. His primary care physician told him it might be a year before he feels completely like himself again. He thinks often of the people who were with him in the COVID unit and never made it out, and those who are there, suffering alone, now.

He tells everyone he can that they should take COVID-19 seriously and realize that if it could happen to him — someone not in a high risk category for age and with no underlying conditions — then they could end up with a life-changing hospitalization stay too.

His wife, Lori, also passed along her thoughts on the virus in an email, asking people to stay home if they are sick and not infect others who could end up as sick as her husband.

"The virus is not a joke or a hoax, it is very much real," she wrote.

Fortunately, Joe said, he had accident insurance through Aflac that helped cover his family's expenses while he was missing work, and his employer, Medelez Trucking, has been understanding of the situation.

"I couldn't ask for a better employer at this point in my life," he said.

He pointed out that he tested positive for COVID-19 far longer than 14 days after his first symptoms, and cautioned against people returning to work too soon. He also strongly encouraged people to stay home if experiencing any symptoms, and said they shouldn't assume that they can't get help through their employer or one of the various funds set up to help people missing work due to COVID-19. He also encourages everyone to wear masks and social distance.

"I'm so happy to have made it because the odds were against me," he said.

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