Earl Collison recalls drifting somewhere in the ether of confounding dreams that involved, among other things, a train ride from the desert Southwest to Scotland and bird hunting with New Mexico’s most recent governors.
But he is still trying to figure out what in the world happened to two months of his life.
He admits it’s a small price to pay for surviving COVID-19.
Collison was Santa Fe’s first hospitalized COVID-19 patient at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. He did what he calls “a 30-day stretch” attached to machines that fed him and kept him breathing, then another five weeks of slowly recuperating.
All the while, he was surrounded by a staff of doctors and nurses he credits with saving his life.
“I wouldn’t be here today were it not for them doing so much in what really is an unusual time,” Collison, 67, said recently. “The work they do in what amounts to an experimental era against a disease we don’t fully understand — it’s amazing.”
After spending nearly 10 weeks in medical facilities for treatment and recovery, he is back in his own home.
While many things in his life have returned to normal, some have not.
The illness, caused by the novel coronavirus, stripped Collison of 40 pounds and his ability to walk, and clouded his mind with vivid dreams he’s still trying to interpret, he said.
The biggest change is his voice, said his wife, Natalie Collison.
Before the illness, he had a deep baritone pitch with an easy, smooth delivery.
“It’s probably the result of the [tracheotomy], but his voice is thin and weak sometimes,” she said. “It seems like it’s gone up an octave. I don’t know if that will ever come back.”
A friend in COVID-19 unit
Santa Fe has had four deaths associated with COVID-19, two of which have occurred at Christus St. Vincent. Since mid-March, when the first case of the virus was reported in Santa Fe, the hospital’s COVID-19 unit has expanded from nine beds and four ventilators to as many as 21 beds in a special containment unit in mid-May.
This weekend, the unit was back down to 12 beds, unit nurse Dominick Armijo said.
Armijo was there when Earl Collison rolled through the doors, and it was a shock for the nurse. The two had been neighbors for five years, and Armijo credits Collison with teaching him the art of drinking whiskey the “sophisticated” way.
“Earl owns a pub in Scotland that’s on my bucket list, and he always told me there’s a right way and a wrong way of enjoying whiskey,” Armijo said.
He paused to reflect on the emotions he felt when he saw his friend on a gurney, fighting for his life.
“At my surprise, to see him there totally on the vent was awful,” Armijo said. “We’ve always kept such a close relationship, so it was such a challenge to see him like that.”
Looking back, Collison said he got off easy. He knows he dodged a bullet hundreds of thousands of people did not.
Long fight for his life
Collison believes he contracted the virus either at work or at a store.
In March, he worked for what was then known as Barraclough & Associates, a Santa Fe firm of certified public accountants that has since become Carr, Riggs & Ingram CPAs. Of the 18 people who worked at Barraclough during the height of tax season in the spring, eight tested positive.
Collison was the only one who required a hospital visit.
The state responded to Barraclough’s outbreak by closing the office for three weeks.
“By that time, I didn’t care because I was already in the hospital,” Collison said.
He called in sick March 30 — the first time in at least three years. He tested positive for the virus a day later and began showing signs of serious illness by the end of the week.
“He had a dry cough that got progressively worse, but when he started trying to curse the cough and everything else away, I knew it was bad,” Natalie Collison said.
In the early hours of April 6, her husband was in an ambulance headed for the hospital.
By the time paramedics got to the Collisons’ house, Earl Collison’s lungs were in a losing fight with the virus. His wife said his oxygen level was so low it took 20 minutes to get him lucid enough to move him up a flight of stairs and out of the house.
“I remember waving to him as they loaded him onto the ambulance thinking I might never see him again,” Natalie Collison said. “It’s your instinct to be there for someone, but they wouldn’t let anyone in. It was so sad.”
Other than his dreams, Earl Collison said he has no memory of the next two months. He spent the first 30 days on a ventilator, a tracheotomy helping to force oxygen into his lungs and a steady stream of fluids serving as his food supply.
The virus attacked his chest, kidneys and liver. By the time he was breathing on his own, he was dealing with a number of side effects such as blood clots in his right arm and neck, an infection in his blood and advanced muscle atrophy.
“I can’t tell you how strange it is to not have that most basic of functions, to not even walk,” Collison said.
He was transferred to a specialty care unit in Albuquerque for three weeks, then back to Christus St. Vincent for a second stint before finally heading home June 10.
Through rehabilitation, he got back on his feet and regained the strength to finally start eating solid foods again.
Also, his system was cleared of the river of antibiotics flowing through his veins. This slowly burned off the fog that had birthed his wild dreams, some of which he has managed to jot down in a series of journal entries.
“I believe that some of those dreams may have been rooted in some sort of reality I was dealing with, like my subconscious memories of the nursing staff taking care of me,” Collison said.
Two of his more interesting dreams had him riding in a train engineered by Armijo, and taking a hunting trip in Scotland in which he and a group of friends, along with former New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and her successor, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, were shooting at birds.
“I can tell you this, Michelle was more adept at hunting than Susana, but that’s straight from a dream-like state because I’ve never met either one,” he said with a laugh.
Toll on loved ones left behind
All the while, his wife was navigating a state of uncertainty. While her husband’s life settled into a machine-aided war against a disease that has now killed nearly 900,000 worldwide — including more than 190,000 in the U.S. and 800 in New Mexico — hers became a continuous loop of anxiety and frustration.
Lost in the endless stories of COVID-19 victims is the impact the illness has had on those left behind.
Natalie Collison, an artist who often loses herself in her paintings in the family’s studio, has gained the perspective of someone qualified to write a how-to manual for those with loved ones in containment units during the pandemic.
“I was living with a foot in two worlds,” she said. “On one hand, you have the possibility of not having this person ever coming home or them coming back and facing a list of long-term issues that may never get better. It’s all surrounded by all these unanswered questions.”
She had daily video chats and text exchanges with medical staff, but steadily cut down her contact with others.
“After a while, you just run out of news to share because there isn’t a lot of change,” she said. “It’s not like I could go down there and see how he was doing. It was stressful to be, you know, stuck in that place.”
She established firm boundaries with friends and family.
“I appointed a cousin on each side of the family and said, ‘If you need anything, ask them,’ ” she said.
Her advice? Stay grounded and keep busy.
“I’m not going to fall to the floor and become a hot mess, and neither should anyone else,” Natalie Collison said. “I’ve got a lot of good coping skills. I got into my painting projects, I moved all the furniture around, I did some work outside. You need those things to stay level.”
After he was finally cleared to come home, Earl Collison’s appearance took some getting used to.
“I thought he looked great with all the weight off,” his wife said, laughing. “But that’s a hard way to lose it.”
Slow return to normal
Earl Collison returned to work at the accounting firm on a part-time basis Wednesday, working out of the office three days a week.
He and his wife take time most days to walk a meandering loop around their neighborhood, covering a mile in about half an hour.
“Doctors told me it would take up to a year before I got my normal strength and stamina back,” Earl Collison said. “There are some things I can do on my own, but one thing I will not is go to the gym. I’ve been told I will have antibodies in my system for a few months, but I’m not going into a place with risk in order to lift weights. I will find other ways.”
Until a vaccine is ready that can rid the world of COVID-19, Collison takes solace in the fact that it’s not a death sentence for everyone who comes into contact with it.
“But,” he said, “I can promise you that this isn’t something I would want anyone to deal with. All I can hope for is that they have the people I did at St. Vincent to get me through it.
“There are people out there risking everything to keep people like us alive.”