Sick with COVID-19 and lying in his hospital bed at Intermountain Medical Center, Thomas Kearl remembers “being afraid to close my eyes” one night because he worried he “wouldn’t make it.”
After removing the breathing tube placed in his first tracheotomy, a team of doctors gave Kearl, 59, two choices.
“One path was, ‘Thom, we’ll make you comfortable. You won’t feel any more pain, and you’ll just pass in peace,’” Kearl said Thursday in a Zoom call with journalists.
His other option, which doctors advised was his “only chance to survive,” was to have a second tracheotomy done. “But it’s risky. It’s dangerous,” they explained, because of the condition he was in.
“I don’t want another trach,” Kearl told his doctors, “but I don’t want to die. So, if that’s my only choice, let’s do it.”
Kearl was hospitalized for 223 days. In that time, he was resuscitated four times, intubated five times and given CPR for 17 minutes, according to an Intermountain Healthcare spokesperson. He eventually also had to relearn how to walk.
“It was horrible,” an emotional Kearl said in a virtual news conference Thursday. “I felt more pain than I’ve ever experienced.”
When Kearl finally left the hospital on Aug. 24, Kenny Loggins’ song “Celebrate Me Home” played — at Kearl’s request — as his wife, Nanette Kearl, wheeled him down a hallway. Doctors and nurses lined up along the walls, cheering and clapping as Thomas Kearl waved, high-fived and gave fist bumps to the people who had cared for him.
“Thanks everybody!” he said before getting in the elevator and making his long-awaited return to his Salt Lake City home.
While he is back in his own bed again, Kearl is quick to note, “I’ve not won this battle. ... I can barely walk with a walker. I can’t go throw footballs and baseballs and Frisbees with my kids yet. But I’m bound and determined. I’m going to fight.”
Kearl now does therapy for three hours a day, six days a week, and he still needs “anywhere from six to 15 liters of oxygen to get up and move,” according to Dr. John Frampton, a physician in physical medicine and rehabilitation with Intermountain Healthcare . But he’s come a long way.
In July 2020, Kearl fell ill but soon recovered from what he thought at the time was COVID-19. To be “brutally honest,” he said, he saw all the small businesses that had “been devastated” and lives “ruined” by the pandemic, at that point. “And I thought COVID was a flu that they just destroyed the world over,” he said.
“Boy, was I wrong,” Kearl said. “Not only is it real, but it’s a plague.”
As cases continue to surge in Utah, Kearl encourages people to get vaccinated. “Use me as the example of what can happen,” he said, “because it’s awful.”
‘I didn’t want to die’
Kearl went on a vacation with his family in Arizona from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2. His youngest son got engaged on New Year’s Eve, and “we just had a wonderful time,” Kearl said.
After they returned home, one of their daughters learned that a friend she had spent time with shortly before their trip tested positive for COVID-19. When their daughter also received a positive test, the rest of the family went to check if they were sick, too.
Out of the 12 of them, 10 were positive. Kearl and his son-in-law received negative results, “but I was very sick,” he said.
Kearl went to the hospital on Jan. 11, his birthday. After some tests, he was sent home. “A few days later, I [had a] 105 fever and couldn’t hold my head up,” he said.
His family rushed him to the emergency room, where a doctor told him his COVID-19 test was a false negative. Kearl was admitted and soon moved to the respiratory intensive care unit.
“I had an incredible nurse that night named Jake,” Kearl said, who “made me feel warm and comfortable in a cold and scary place.”
Kearl “tried to sleep through all the poking and prodding,” but he couldn’t keep his oxygen level where it needed to be. A doctor told him, “Thom, we have to put you on a ventilator, or you won’t make it through the night.”
There were “a lot of people scurrying about,” Kearl said, and then the next thing he remembers is waking up a few days later with tubes down his throat and nose. He kept getting sicker, he said, and “got every complication known to man to be associated with COVID”, including viral pneumonia, bacterial pneumonia, renal failure, sepsis and MRSA, among other ailments.
“Through the process, the nurses and my family told me that I coded,” Kearl said, meaning “I died.”
“I didn’t want to die,” Kearl said Thursday, his voice breaking as he became emotional. “I love my family. I love my children. I love my three grandkids. So, I kept fighting. And thanks to the skill and the education and the training of the wonderful health professionals, they brought me back.”
Dr. Peter Crossno , a critical care and pulmonary physician with Intermountain Healthcare, said he was there one of the times that Kearl had a cardiac arrest. “We, thankfully, were there in time to recover him from that,” Crossno said.
Kearl, who said he is a Christian, said he had “some incredible spiritual experiences” and “a lot of guardian angels” watching over him during his hospitalization.
“I had help from the other side on more than one occasion,” he said. “I had answers to prayers, sometimes almost instantly.”
One time, he prayed for help when he needed to go to the restroom. He pushed a button to call for a nurse, but he couldn’t talk, and it was urgent.
“Can you imagine the humiliation of dirtying yourself in your bed and having no ability to do anything about it?” Kearl said. “They took care of all of my needs, everything.”
Confined to his hospital bed, Kearl said, he “got really good at counting ceiling tiles.” He remembers there were 55 tiles in his first room in the ICU. Otherwise, he mostly thought about surviving, he said.
Recovering from the trauma
Before catching COVID-19, “I really didn’t” have any preexisting health conditions, Kearl said. “I was pretty healthy. I wasn’t taking any medication on a daily basis. And that’s changed.”
One of his biggest frustrations in the hospital was that “I couldn’t walk” or “even stand up,” Kearl said. He also didn’t taste food or water for almost seven months, and was instead fed through a tube in his stomach.
It was “a blessing” when he finally got to eat mashed potatoes again, he said, “because I was told I might not be able to have food or drink in a normal manner ever again.”
Just being in his own bed again, “having my wife be able to lay next to me and hold my hand,” has been healing for Kearl.
“I get emotional very easily,” and Kearl said he’s learned “that’s a release from the trauma” he experienced. He has been diagnosed with PTSD, he said.
Kearl’s case is unusual, according to Dr. Crossno, especially considering the seriousness of being being in the ICU.
The “223 days in the hospital is an incredibly long time. It’s probably the longest I’ve had a patient in the ICU that I can recall in recent memory,” he said.
There were times when “many of us looked around the room and said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be it for him or not,’” Crossno said. But Kearl was determined.
“I don’t think any of us would wish this on anybody,” Crossno said. “This is an incredibly hard thing to survive.”
The COVID-19 vaccines were not available for the general public when Kearl was hospitalized in January. After going through rehabilitation, Kearl’s first stop when he was allowed to go on outings was to get his first shot.
“I’ve got ‘til Sept. 16 [for the second shot], and I will gratefully roll myself in to get my vaccination,” Kearl said. “Because it will save me.”
On his way home from the hospital last month, his family drove him by dozens of “We love Thom” signs that people — some of whom he didn’t even know — placed in their yards to show support. Over the weekend, neighbors and friends stood in his yard with banners welcoming him back.
Kearl said he is grateful for all the doctors, nurses and medical staff, as well as his family, who have helped him through his illness and recovery. “I want to live,” he said.