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Back from the COVID-19 brink: Flagstaff man, once near death from virus, recalls his ordeal

Those who do not take COVID-19 seriously, those who scoff at every cough and dismiss it as no worse than the flu, those on the fringes who doubt its very existence — all those people perhaps might want to pay attention to Randell Whitehair’s story.

It is a story at once uncommon and all too familiar during a pandemic that has taken more than 700,000 lives nationally and sickened millions.

That Whitehair, who worked as an IT administrator for the Flagstaff Unified School District, is alive to tell his tale of a nine-month ordeal that included a medically induced coma, intubation, decisions his wife faced about whether to “pull the plug,” and four months of intensive rehabilitation, is simply astonishing to the 38-year-old father of two.

Though he is Navajo, a people often culturally averse to speaking of illness and death, Whitehair is willing to share the many challenges and setbacks he faced — and still faces — on the road to recovery in hopes that it will encourage others to take COVID seriously as well as give hope to those who, like him, are battling its deleterious health concerns.

“It’s kind of taboo to talk about death in my culture, because your words are powerful,” Whitehair said over a cup of coffee one recent morning at an east Flagstaff café. “You’re able to speak life and speak death, you know. So, what you speak is speaking it into existence, so most Navajos are not comfortable talking. But, for me, I feel obligated.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand what this virus does, how serious it is. Just being able to live through it, it’s something people need to hear. We only hear that people are dying from this virus, and people and their families have no hope. People just assume that’s the end. But I’m sitting here, living proof that it’s possible to get through it. It’s not the flu, man. It’s totally different. It’s unknown.”

He spoke softly, in a breathy whisper due to the scarring of his lungs, a condition for which he still is undergoing physical therapy nine months after contracting the coronavirus.

Just by looking at Whitehair, you wouldn’t peg him as somebody who endured a near-death experience last winter and spring. At 5-foot-10 tall and 180 pounds, he is stocky and substantial, but the gingerly way he walked to the café table belies initial appearances. He is happy, though, and smiles often, because at times during his horrific 2021 recovery, doctors thought he might not be able to walk again or work again, or live a semblance of normal life again.

Yet, here he is, gearing up to return to work in November — a little more than a month shy of the one-year anniversary of his succumbing to COVID.

His ordeal began prosaically enough the second week of December, around his birthday. A common cold, Whitehair thought. A generally healthy guy — though with an underlying Type-2 diabetes condition — he almost always gets a cold each winter. This one seemed no different, at first.

“I was congested, minor body aches, headache, slight fever — I don’t think I went above 100,” he said. “But it was always in the back of my mind: could this be COVID? I’m usually pretty positive. I was thinking, maybe it’s just a cold.”

It lingered. It got a little worse. Whitehair called in sick to work and isolated in his room to protect his family, just in case. He broke down and got a drive-thru COVID test on Dec. 15.

Results: positive.

Whitehair’s wife, Felesha, and son Isaiah, 12, tested positive as well. (His daughter, Haylei, 9, was spared.) His wife and son got better quickly; he did not. Clinicians at Sacred Peaks Health Center told him to buy an oxygen saturation pulse oximeter at the drug store and, if he felt up to it, take easy, light walks in the neighborhood to, as Randell said, “get some vitamin D and sun.”

So he set off one December afternoon at a slow pace, not taxing in the least.

“I walked just around our (apartment) complex,” he said. “I didn’t feel right. I got back to the apartment and got woozy. Things started turning black.”

Immediately, he put the oximeter on his finger to gauge his oxygen level.

The number that popped up — 76 — alarmed him and his wife. (A normal oxygen level is 95%; below 80% is considered dangerous.)

An ambulance was called, and Whitehair was taken to the Flagstaff Medical Center emergency room, where his condition worsened. He was admitted and stabilized — or so they believed. His breathing labored, and his oxygen level did not rise.

“The last thing I remember,” Whitehair said, “was Christmas Day, the kids opening presents on Facetime. From there, it was just kind of a blur.”

He found out much later that, after he was intubated and put in a medically induced coma, doctors gave his wife the word that, if he didn’t improve in 14 days, “they were pretty much leaving it up to my wife to pull the plug. That would’ve meant death, yeah.”

Before it reached that decisive point, Whitehair said an Flagstaff Medical Center doctor proposed moving him to a hospital in Phoenix outfitted with a respiratory machine named “ECMO,” short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. On New Year’s Eve, he said, he was helicoptered out of FMC to Honor Health John C. Lincoln Medical Center.

“I was out of it, but it’s funny because I kind of had some consciousness of what was going on,” he said, smiling. “I was sedated, I guess, but I was dreaming I was in the air and doctors and nurses coming to see me.”

The next three months went by in a haze for Whitehair in the Phoenix hospital. He remembers, vaguely, (or more likely was told afterward) ECMO treatments and surgery to implant a trachea tube for a ventilator and feeding tube.

His prognosis, frankly, was not promising, though he said Felesha received mixed signals.

“There was one point where they said I’m not making progress,” he recalled. “The next day, they’re telling (his wife) that I’m doing well from the ECMO treatment. Then, at another point, they said, ‘He might have to be on the ventilator for the rest of his life.’ It was hard on her.”

But, as February turned to March, Whitehair regained some clarity and some health.

“I had started to wake up and look around, and I remember seeing people next to me doing their (ECMO) treatment and I was asking, ‘Where am I?’” he said. “The nurses told me I’d been through a lot but it looks like I’m going to be OK. There was one point when this doctor came in — I recognized his voice — and saying, ‘Randell, It’s good to see you.’ Next thing he says is, ‘What are you doing lying in bed? You’re not getting any better just lying there. You don’t need to be here anymore.”

He had turned a corner — but many more corners needed to be navigated.

The next four months at Sunview Respiratory and Rehab in Youngtown (west of Phoenix), he spent recovering and regaining functions he formerly took for granted: breathing normally, walking, eating, gaining muscle and skeletal strength. He also got the COVID vaccine when it became available. His family couldn’t visit in person because of COVID restrictions, but they could gather at a window and wave.

“I felt normal at that point, sort of,” he said. “I was just glad to be alive. I still had tons of fluid in my lungs, was dealing with high blood pressure and blood clots. At that point, the virus was gone, but I still had the after-effects.”

Whitehair had lost more than 50 pounds in the hospital (from 220, pre-COVID, to 160) and had lost the ability to walk. By June, though, he was ambulatory once more.

Intensive therapy saw him regain 20 of those pounds and rebuild his strength. He was discharged and returned to Flagstaff and his family on Sept. 24.

Since then, he has continued physical therapy and plans to return to the workforce in two weeks. It has been a rough on his family, emotionally and fiscally. They face daunting medical bills. But Whitehair says he feels stronger physically than mentally.

“The crazy thing is physically I’m not 100%, but what I’ve gone through emotionally, that takes more of a toll on you,” he said. “That’s something I’m going to have to live with the next couple of years or maybe the rest of my life, remembering everything that happened and …”

His voice trailed off, but he meant his brush with mortality.

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As he returns to his life, he wants people to know that COVID can kill, but that it’s not necessarily a death sentence.

He also wants people to be vigilant. It puzzles him that he will never know how and where he contracted COVID — “School was in session, but kids and teachers were remote, and I was going from apartment to work, work to home, only stops in between was to get something from Safeway, and I always wore a mask”— and cautions others to take the virus seriously.

“The disease is very real, very alarming,” he said. “I’m not forcing anyone to get vaccinated, but it’s important, though. You don’t want to get this.”

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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