On March 17, Roger Pinette was feeling chills and coughing, so he asked his wife for a hot water bottle, and lay down for a nap.
Forty days later, he woke up in the middle of a pandemic.
At the time, COVID-19 had only begun to slowly creep into the public consciousness. On March 11, there were 21 cases in B.C.; two weeks later, there were 792, and Pinette — unbeknownst to him — was one of them.
By the time he woke up in the intensive care unit at Royal Columbian Hospital, having been ventilated for 40 days — one of the first patients in B.C. to be in ICU on a ventilator — the first surge had passed, and the curve was flattening.
“So I slept through it all,” the 73-year-old Langley resident said with a chuckle. “I was really lucky in that regard, that I didn’t have to live the whole time knowing I had something that was killing some people.
“When I finally did come to the world … I was a bit shocked because I didn’t realize the seriousness of what I had been through.”
Pinette survived and is home again, but like many other “long-haulers ,” is still clawing his way back to health. He dropped nearly a third of his body weight in hospital, weighing 121 pounds when he left, and the mobility he had before COVID-19 — he regularly walked kilometres — was reduced to the point he considered lifting his foot up the six-inch step to his house a major victory.
He’s out of the wheelchair he came home in, and no longer needs a walker to get around the house, but numbness in his feet and hands still persists, a symptom of the nerve damage he suffered. His lungs, which were internally inflamed and weakened from the weeks on the ventilator, are slowly recovering.
“When I first woke up and realized that I had COVID, my daughter was there explaining to me, I had a hard time even talking back because my vocal cords had softened so much,” he said. “My left hand, I can’t make a fist with it. I work it every day and I’ve got two fingers coming down touching my palm, but the other two I can’t get up and down. And on the right hand, I’ve got all the fingers coming down to the palm now. But I wake up and I have a real numbness on the left side, numbness in the feet and hands.
“But at least I am keeping my hair,” he added with a chuckle. “I didn’t have a lot to lose anyways.”
While in hospital and rehab, his wife wasn’t allowed to visit, with her own underlying health conditions. His daughters, one in Victoria, one in Germany, would visit virtually through FaceTime and phone calls, the nurses read letters from his wife.
Eventually, his daughter, Celia, was allowed to visit, bringing him hot meals twice a day. His other daughter, Monica — a two-time Olympic modern pentathlete — would check in by FaceTime from Germany.
He praised the health-care workers who have put themselves willingly on the front lines, and remembers a nurse telling him she had lost four friends to COVID-19 back home in the Philippines, a discussion that simultaneously left him full of sorrow and admiration.
It took four months before he was allowed to return home, and he has gained back some of the weight he lost while in hospital. He can cut his half-acre lawn with his ride-on mower, but the days of clambering over kilometres of rocks along the Chilliwack River so he can fish are memories for now, his balance still compromised by his fight with the coronavirus. Besides, he can’t even hold his fishing pole right now.
“Everyone asks me, ‘Where did you get it, Roger?’ Well, you know, you never know,” said Pinette, who is of Metis descent. “I think the big thing is to realize that it’s such a scary damn virus that you shouldn’t be too concerned about where you might be catching it, you ought to be concerned on how you don’t want to touch it.
“People think that if you know where you get it, then they won’t get it, but that’s not the way it works.”
With his brush with death, and his wife in the at-risk demographic as well, Pinette is diligent about wearing a mask, washing his hands and produce, and social distancing. The recent spike in cases in the Fraser Valley worry him , especially when he sees so many health protocols flouted or wilfully ignored.
“It sort of gets my back up a little bit, going shopping and people are waltzing by me with no mask on and they’re picking up the food and handling it and putting it back down. ‘I guess I’m not buying any apples today,’ ” he said. “It just really lays on heavy once you’ve been there. It’s really hard to put that into proper perspective for a person that hasn’t had it.
“It’s scary. I think it’s scarier now than when I first got it … I mean, you have got to have lived it, and then later and look back on it and say, ‘Well, I was lucky I made it,’ but we’re in trouble — and we are in trouble. It’s serious. Deadly serious.”