‘We said our goodbyes’ — Here’s how University of Utah Hospital’s first COVID-19 patient is doing

A year later, he still has “a few very minor cognitive problems, but I see them getting better.”

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah Health) Neal Murphy, seen on the left on March 14, 2020, when he was one of the first COVID-19 patients at University of Utah Hospital, and, on the right, nearly a year later.

Neal Murphy doesn’t like the term “patient zero,” and doesn’t want to be accused of bringing the coronavirus to Utah.

“I don’t need the mail,” said Murphy, whom the University of Utah Hospital considers to be perhaps the first patient it treated for COVID-19 when the pandemic began a year ago.

Murphy, 75, and his son, Ryan — a doctor who works in that hospital — were part of a virtual news conference arranged Friday to mark the university health system’s year dealing with COVID-19.

The older Murphy, who is a clinical professor of dentistry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said he was flying from his California home to Salt Lake City on Feb. 27, 2020, to visit his son, Ryan — a doctor at University Hospital — and he believes he caught the coronavirus on the flight.

On the evening of March 3, he said in a video produced by the university, “I told my son, ‘I can’t go to dinner with you. I’m just feeling really tired.’ Then I hit a wall.”

By 1 a.m. on March 4, he had a fever of 101 degrees. By 5 a.m., the fever hit 104.5 degrees. “And I said to my wife, ‘This is not a cold,’” Murphy said in the video. “About a day later, they said, ‘It’s COVID.’”

Murphy was in University of Utah Hospital for 13 days. He was in the intensive care unit for 10 days, and intubated and using a ventilator for five days.

Murphy put a picture up on the railing of his hospital bed of the late Sen. John McCain, from his days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “I focused on that, and said, ‘If he can survive five years of torture, I can go through this,’” he said in the video.

Because of past health issues, Murphy said he later learned his chance of surviving was about 3%.

“We said our goodbyes, just in case,” Dr. Murphy told reporters Friday. “I can definitely say it’s not a great experience. Nobody wants to see a loved one get sick. In those first few days, we definitely weren’t sure if he was going to make it, and we talked about the possibility if he didn’t.”

Dr. Murphy, a hospitalist at University of Utah Health, said he prefers “to focus on how lucky we were. I’m lucky that he was here, that he was visiting at the time he got sick. He was able to be hospitalized at the institution I work at, with people I know.”

In recovery, the elder Murphy said he would sometimes get antsy, and start doing push-ups in his hospital room — drawing rebukes from the nurses.

“Sometimes I’m a little too enthusiastic,” he told reporters Friday.

He said his understanding of science helped him. “Intellectually, I could understand what was going on,” Murphy said. “Patients have responsibilities, too.”

A year later, Murphy said he still has “a few very minor cognitive problems, but I see them getting better.”

He said he’s been told that with a virus, “one must calculate a prognosis in terms of years, not necessarily months or weeks, like a bacterial infection. So I’m optimistic. … I realize optimism is a choice, not necessarily a conclusion. So I choose to be optimistic, and that’s helped a lot.”