When looking back at how the past two months unfolded, it’s easy for Michael Bane to identify where things could have gone differently. If on March 3 he hadn’t gone to a routine doctor’s appointment. If after that appointment he hadn’t decided to go surprise his wife, who worked at the hospital, with flowers. If on the way to do so he hadn’t stopped to talk with someone at the reception desk—someone who two days later would test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that already had been ravaging countries around the world but whose spread in the United States was still, to a large extent, unknown. On March 3, the CDC had only reported 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the entire country.
It’s impossible to know for sure when the virus entered his body, but it likely was there, at the hospital reception. “I put my hands on the desk,” Michael told me. “I’m not someone who’s particularly good at avoiding touching [my] face.”
But at the time he wasn’t all that concerned about COVID-19. And why should he have been? He was only 42, in good health, someone who had run five marathons. A graduate of Andrews University and now a managing attorney at a Chicago law firm, Michael was not part of a high-risk population.
We know now, despite early misconceptions, that COVID-19 is not a disease of just the old, or the infirm. It could come for nearly any of us, and it would soon be coming for Michael.
It had been over a week when he felt the first twinge of illness, a runny nose that cleared up only to return the next day. In the time since Michael’s visit to the hospital, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In the United States, political and health authorities scrambled to mount a response and increase testing.
By Sunday, March 15, a consistent cough and intermittent sore throat began to worry Michael, though it was probably a cold, he thought, or perhaps the flu. He even felt well enough to stop by the gym for a workout.
That night, however, the pain began. “I was trying to fall asleep and I was just experiencing horrible pain,” Michael told me. Perhaps he had pulled a muscle in his back, he thought at first, but as the hours ticked by the pain increased, and soon he was running a fever as well. By morning, he had a persistent, dry cough.
“Even though I knew that these were the symptoms, you know, what are the odds?” he remembered thinking. Since the beginning of March, confirmed COVID-19 cases had grown exponentially but still numbered in the low thousands. Even so, on Monday he scheduled a telehealth appointment at the recommendation of a local hospital’s hotline. The physician, hearing that Michael’s wife worked at a hospital, deemed his chance of exposure high enough to order a test, though it could be several days until one was available.
The fever got worse that day, his temperature climbing until it hit 104.4. The pain was excruciating. In the middle of that night, however, Michael awoke to find the fever had broken. Perhaps it had just been a touch of the flu after all, he thought.
Yet by morning, the fever had returned.
“It was a very unusual experience,” Michael described of getting tested. On Tuesday the17th he drove himself to the hospital and waited in his car, until an employee directed him through locked doors and into a secure area. A doctor fully covered in protective equipment came in and took a nasal swab. The test results would most likely take a few days, she told Michael, but he was free to go. He walked back through an empty hallway and heard the lock click behind him as he stepped outside.
The next morning, to his surprise, a notification said that results were ready. He opened them but saw only influenza A and B listed—both negative. It wasn’t a diagnosis or certainty, but Michael knew that if he didn’t have the flu the most likely remaining explanation was the coronavirus. He began to take more precautions, self-isolating within his house and avoiding contact with his wife and daughter.
Michael’s days become a blur of fever and coughing, followed by periods of tantalizing improvement—only to dissolve into another relapse. Always, the coughing returned. By Saturday, March 21, breathing had become difficult and he heard crackling in his lungs, often a sign of pneumonia. His arms, neck, and face tingled. “I don’t exactly feel near-death, but more like life adjacent,” Michael wrote about his condition that day. At his wife’s urging, he finally decided to go to the hospital.
At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, he waited in a special triage area for potential COVID-19 patients. A 14-story modern tower of concrete and glass, the facility was “built specifically for a deadly pandemic,” The Washington Post described it recently, as its emergency room units have sealed glass doors and a negative-pressure air system to isolate patients, while an auxiliary atrium is converted to treat the non-infectious during times of crisis.
While waiting to be seen, Michael’s phone rang. It was the Illinois Health Department, calling to say that the final test was back: he was positive for COVID-19.
“I don’t actually know what any of my nurses or doctors looked like because the entire time I was there I never saw them without the mask on,” Michael told me. After being admitted, he endured tests, x-rays, and being put on an IV, then was left to rest in his room. Alone there, he began writing a long Facebook post. On the day he first wondered if he might possibly have COVID-19, Michael began writing down every detail of what he felt, just in case it might prove useful later on. Now he compiled it all, describing the minutia of the past week.
“Putting it out there was just, ‘Hey, friends that don’t believe this is a real thing, this is a real thing. Practice social distancing!’” he told me. Michael wrote what he wished he could have read all those days earlier, when it was easy to just pass the symptoms off as something else.
Over the next several days, he watched his blood oxygen saturation drop into the high eighties. An x-ray, compared to one taken when he was admitted, showed his bilateral pneumonia had advanced and progressed. “It look[ed] like a latticework of glass,” he remembered of the picture of his lungs. Doctors started him on supplemental oxygen that helped somewhat, but the basic action of getting enough oxygen into his body became more and more difficult.
At the same time, Michael noticed something strange: the number of views and shares on his Facebook post kept growing. First it was just a few hundred, then a thousand, then tens of thousands of shares. Across the world, people were reading and spreading his story. The phone in his room began to ring. “I don’t know how anyone got my room number, but I got calls from media. I got calls from complete strangers, asking questions,” he said. During the day, when the medications left him feeling the best, he worked to continue writing down his story.
Fever reducers and Hycodan—an opioid cough suppressant—given around the clock helped to somewhat control his symptoms. Doctors also put Michael on an experimental regimen of azithromycin, an antibiotic, and hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that has been the source of much debate as a COVID-19 treatment.1 Still, the doctors cautioned that the fight against the disease was probably not over. They were right.
On Thursday, March 26, Michael was writing to a work colleague when his computer mouse fell on the floor. Getting out of bed, he bent down to pick it up and, in an instant, felt that he couldn’t breathe, as his oxygen levels dropped into the low 80s. “I felt like I had no air,” Michael remembered.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt panic like I did at that moment,” he later wrote.
Michael hit the emergency call button and was surrounded by seven or eight medical staff, who increased his oxygen delivery and took an arterial blood draw for tests. The attending doctor told Michael he was being sent to the ICU. Hopefully, his oxygen levels would stabilize but if they didn’t, the doctor said, he would be put in an induced coma, intubated, and put on a ventilator.
Since the start of the pandemic, much attention has been given to the numbers of ventilators in the United States and elsewhere, and although they can be essential, lifesaving tools for doctors, once a patient is sick enough to be mechanically ventilated their prognosis is often grim. In a study released May 1st of all the COVID-19 patients receiving intensive care in the United Kingdom, 62% of those given mechanical ventilation did not survive. In some parts of the world, the numbers have been even worse.
“I’m thinking oh man, please get better, please get better!” Michael remembered thinking as he was being wheeled to the ICU. But Michael would not be intubated. His lungs, despite the damage from the virus and resulting pneumonia—and with the help of supplemental oxygen—remained capable of transferring enough oxygen to his blood stream to sustain life.
After a long string of misfortune, it turned out Michael would be one of the lucky ones.
By the end of his hospital stay, Michael’s original Facebook post had been shared 325,000 times. He had done numerous interviews, seen his story featured all over the world—his picture would even later appear on the front page of his hometown Chicago Tribune—and heard from all manner of strangers. Many of the calls and messages were kind, wishing him the best. Some people wanted advice on their own symptoms, something Michael sympathized with even though he was hardly equipped to help as he battled the disease himself. There were also plenty of messages giving him medical advice.
“Some of it was just awful,” Michael remembered. “I know people mean well, but some of it was like, no one should do this!”
He also dealt with feedback about all the things he had done before being hospitalized. Michael was intentional to give the whole story, both the things he did right and the things he wished he had done differently. Going to the gym, for one, when he thought he might just have a cold. On the day he had gotten tested, Michael had also dropped his daughter off at day care—his wife was working so he had limited options. As far as he knew, no one he came in contact with later got sick, but he still hoped others would take more precautions than he had in the beginning. In March, early in the crisis, it was all too easy to dismiss the danger, especially for the young and healthy. He was also left with the dilemma carried by so many people, of trying to balance taking care of family and work while also being safe. “I was an example of someone who tried to preach taking it seriously, but [I] wasn’t doing the things that I should have been doing, at least to the extent that I should have been doing them,” he said. “I hope that my failures serve as a lesson.”
After a day in the ICU, Michael was moved back to his original ward, and over the next several days his supplemental oxygen was reduced. On Monday, March 30, after 10 days, he walked out of the hospital.
When I first spoke to Michael he was in his basement, where he had been isolating since returning home, waiting until he could have every possible guarantee of no longer being contagious. Just as in the hospital, he talked to his wife and daughter over Facetime, even though they were living mere feet away. On a warm spring day soon after getting home, he went into his backyard while his wife brought their daughter to a window; she was excited, seeing Michael without the use of a screen for the first time in weeks.
And then, finally, the isolation ended for good. “It’s been great to see my family again,” he wrote to me in April, after leaving the confines of the basement and being fully reunited with his family.
Even as the physical impacts of the experience continue to fade—Michael is hopeful for a full recovery without permanent lung damage—other psychological ones remain. “I'm well past the point where my doctors said it was safe for me to be around people, but the experience is still rattling around in my head and holding me back,” he said. “Not sure how long that will last.”
For most of the world, it’s approaching two months living in crisis now, and discussions from political leaders have turned to what the next steps of reopening economies and loosening social distancing requirements might be. Compared to when Michael Bane first became sick and his personal account of the disease struck such a collective nerve, the odds are now so much greater that someone has personally been affected—whether from becoming sick, or through seeing the illness in friends or family. Even so, many still deny the seriousness of COVID-19. Many have not seen its devastating potential face to face. Early on, health authorities warned that if social distancing worked, it would be easy to dismiss its effectiveness; by virtue of success it would be doubted. Now, as we enter the uncharted territory of the months to come and more precautions are left to personal volition, it is our imperative to remember the stories of those who have struggled, lest such stories become our own.
As a survivor, Michael has entered a new and strange chapter, since he is likely immune to SARS-CoV-2. He has donated blood and saliva samples to several institutions developing antibody tests, and recently they confirmed that Michael's body does hold the infection-fighting antibodies (though scientists emphasize that the extent and duration of immunity for survivors is still unknown).
On a trip to the grocery store soon after reentering daily life, he saw an elderly man fall down. Other shoppers froze, unsure of whether they should approach or keep their distance. “I realized that I was probably the best person to assist,” Michael told me. He helped the man to his feet.
Notes & References:
Alex Aamodt is the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum.
Photos courtesy of Michael Bane.
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