Even though it’s tough for him to breathe and talk, Atish Ram is using his voice to tell people about how COVID-19 nearly killed him.
The Surrey resident, 58, is back home after fighting the virus during a difficult eight weeks in hospital.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Ram, who called his stay at Royal Columbian “a roller coaster ride” complicated by pneumonia.
Last fall, Ram was named Volunteer of the Year during the annual Surrey Community Leader awards.
Months later, his family’s dream trip to Toronto to appear on the Family Feud Canada TV game show almost didn’t happen after Ram had emergency surgery to take care of blockages in his heart.
By late March, he was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
“I believe I got it when I went to a grocery store – I don’t want to say which one, but I was so vigilant,” Ram said. “I went to my doctor on March 16, and he told me about how crazy this virus was, to be vigilant. So a few days later I went to the store, just 15 minutes in and out, but at the time there were no social distancing or anything, nothing like we see now. That was the only place I went, and a few days later I started getting a fever, some symptoms.”
In a phone interview, the Newton-area resident talked slowly and paused occasionally.
“It’s still so hard to breathe,” he said.
“I’m on home oxygen – three to six months of this, at least, because my lungs are at only 25 per cent capacity now,” he added. “I’m trying to gain some of my strength back by walking, but it’s really hard to go for any length of time.”
His battle with COVID-19 caused him to lose close to 30 pounds over the past three months.
“I want to share my story because I want to tell people how this virus almost killed me, and that the virus is still out there,” he said. “And until there’s a vaccine, nobody is safe. And I could get this again, if it’s a mutated version or something.”
In March, his laboured breathing led to a chest X-ray, a positive COVID test and, eventually, admission to Royal Columbian, where Ram’s cardiac doctor was located.
“At that time, all the nurses and doctors were scared to even come into my room, for fear of catching COVID,” he recalled.
“It was a weird time, and I was there for three days in the COVID ward, I got really, really bad,” Ram added. “I just laid in bed, couldn’t do anything – my family couldn’t come to see me and that was hard. I couldn’t even get up out of bed. That Sunday I was getting really bad, I rang the bell at 3 in the morning and said to the nurse, ‘I can’t breathe.’ It was just like somebody sitting on your chest and pouring water on your face, that’s how bad it was, like drowning.”
Ram was rushed back to ICU, where doctors told him his lungs were filled with fluid.
“They managed to stabilize me,” Ram said, “and hooked me up to all these monitors and IVs. I wasn’t allowed water because the one nurse said they were going to intubate me that night. He said, ‘When we do that, you’re pretty much going to be in a coma and you may not come out of it. Your lungs are really bad. I going to be honest with you, you need to make a phone call and say what you need to say to your wife and kids, because it could be the last things you say. I don’t want to scare you but I want to be truthful with you.’ I just laid there and thought, ‘Is this it?’”
Somehow, Ram’s condition improved enough that intubation wasn’t required.
“When two guys came in to do an X-ray the following morning, I thought it was all a dream.”
During his 53 days in hospital, Ram kept failing subsequent COVID tests. He needed three negative tests in a row, but doctors couldn’t figure out why the virus wouldn’t leave his body.
Finally, it did.
The ordeal took a toll on him both physically and mentally.
“I was alone for so much of that time, just very brief visits by nurses or doctors, but only when they absolutely needed to,” Ram explained.
He says despite the relaxation of some measures to combat the virus, people need to remain vigilant.
“If people think they’re resilient and aren’t going to get it, they may not have any symptoms but they could have it and give it to someone who has an underlying condition, such as asthma, and it doesn’t matter how old you are,” Ram said.
“There was a 30-year-old school teacher who came into ICU and he had a massive stroke, and he was COVID-positive, but had no symptoms. I also saw people who didn’t make it, but some walked out of there fine.
“I say to all my friends who’ve contacted me, I say look, think of every person that you see has COVID, right, because you don’t know if that person has it or not, and you could be passing it along to someone else and do a lot of damage unintentionally.”