Clement Chow, an asian American man, wears a colorful mask in a selfie photo.

Humans of the U: Clement Chow

The isolation is the worst. Lying awake alone, wondering what will happen. Will I die alone?

It started with a low-grade fever accompanied by the chills and cold sweats. With two young kids, I am no stranger to being sick so I thought at worst, this was just a bad case of the flu. COVID-19 didn’t even enter my mind; after all, there were only one or two cases in Utah at the time.

Then came the cough. It started as a typical cough, but it quickly got worse. I started coughing up blood in my phlegm. Within a day, I was having trouble catching my breath and the coughing worsened.

My wife rushed me to the ER at the University of Utah Hospital. We were instructed to call when we arrived so the staff would be prepared with personal protective equipment for themselves and for me. They asked my wife to go home and rushed me into an isolation room. I could barely make the short walk—my breathing had worsened and I was gasping for air. They put me on oxygen using a nasal cannula which provided immediate relief. I would later find out I was positive for COVID-19.

It quickly became harder and harder for me to catch my breath, even on the oxygen. I was treated with respiratory therapy to open my airways and the oxygen was turned up as high as possible. Nothing was working. I was still gasping. A crew showed up in PPE, rushed me to the ICU, and put me on high-flow oxygen. I would spend the next five days there without seeing my family.

More isolation. ICU isolation is lonely. The staff are donned in PPE and everyone looks the same, making the whole experience even lonelier. That night I laid awake, alone, wondering if I was going to die. Wondering if I would ever see my family again. Luckily, I had amazing nurses and physicians who kept watch over me and slowly weaned me off of high flow oxygen, eliminating the need for intubation.

I was fortunate to get sick so early. I was the first COVID-19 ICU case at the hospital and had the attention of all the staff. I was sent home with oxygen and was told recovery would be slow. But isolation continued, as I had to be quarantined for an additional 10 days away from my family at home.

I know I am one of the lucky ones – I survived. Others have not been so lucky. The physical pain was terrible, but even more, the isolation and loneliness was something I had never experienced. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are dying.

COVID-19 is crushing, both physically and emotionally. Please stay at home and practice physical distancing. Keeping more people healthy mitigates undue risk to our healthcare providers who have families of their own. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall did the right thing by issuing a mandatory stay at home order. Gov. Gary Herbert needs to do the same immediately.

Five months after leaving the hospital, I am finally feeling close to normal again. I’m no longer coughing and can participate in normal activities of day to day life. I mostly just feel lucky that I survived to be with my family again.

—Clement Chow, assistant professor in the Department of Human Genetics. Adapted from Chow’s commentary for the Salt Lake Tribune that published on April 2, 2020.