South Jersey resident Tom McLaughlin recounts his battle coming off of a ventilator and how he’s managing long-term heart complications, while still living life to the fullest.
I’m at the point now where it rarely dawns on me how sick I once was. Coming up on the two-year mark of this pandemic, as well as my own personal battle with COVID-19, almost feels surreal.
In the Hospital
It all started on March 29, 2020. I was hospitalized with COVID-19, after experiencing a cough, post-nasal drip, headaches, fatigue, and severe shortness of breath.
I can’t recall many of the details of what transpired during my hospital stay. But I spent ten days there and wound up on a ventilator. I was told I was one of the lucky ones to come off it.
However lucky, I still struggled to wrap my mind around the reality of my situation, the realization that I might have never gone back home. When I finally had the courage to call my family and friends, my emotions greatly affected my ability.
Things started to look up for me though. My vitals climbed and my spirits were lifted by my incredible nurses.
After I was discharged and sent home on oxygen, I decided to donate lunch to my care team as a small token of my appreciation, although it’s difficult to fully express my thanks to those who saved my life.
How COVID-19 Impacted My Heart
Unfortunately, within a few weeks I started to experience complications from blood clots in my lungs and weakened heart muscle. The blood clots were arguably easier to treat, though they took a couple months to disintegrate. I didn’t know it then, but my heart would need continuous monitoring because of how severely it was affected.
COVID-19 had ravaged my heart muscle, reducing my ejection fraction (EF) – which is the measurement of the amount of blood pumped through the heart with each contraction or heartbeat – to 20%. Through the care of my cardiologist, Dr. Steven DaTorre, I learned that this put me at high risk for irregular heart rhythms, heart attack, and sudden cardiac arrest.
To monitor and regulate my heart rhythms, I had to wear a LifeVest (an external defibrillator) for around nine months. While I understood it was a necessary lifeline, it was cumbersome and frustrating, getting caught on just about everything I walked past.
Thankfully, we were able to implement a more permanent solution. I had a defibrillator implanted in my chest, which I felt more at ease with immediately.
A Lingering ‘Brain Fog’
Brain fog is often talked about as a side effect of COVID-19, but I didn’t realize I had it until people pointed it out to me. I knew I felt “off” for a while, then one day, I just snapped out of it. My coworkers, who spent the most time with me, were quick to note how much better I looked. I was finally back to “my normal self.”
Moving Up & Getting Back on the Court
This past year, I’ve felt fantastic. I follow up with Dr. DaTorre routinely to check my heart muscle and EF, which is now up to 40%. I have had zero cardiac events or irregularities, and my blood work is great.
I’ve gone through a couple of medicine changes, with very few side effects, but all in all, I know it’s helping my body heal. If this upward trend continues, I may be able to have my defibrillator removed.
I haven’t had to make many lifestyle changes, as I’ve always been an active person, officiating high school basketball and coaching baseball on the side. I just try to refrain from lifting heavy things.
Last year was the first time in 23 years I didn’t step foot on the basketball court. This winter, I returned with mixed feelings. As eager as I was, I was also scared to death to go back out there. I didn’t know what to expect, or how much I could safely push myself. Each game, I pushed myself a little more, until I couldn’t even remember I had a defibrillator. Of course, there’s always a trainer on the sidelines if something were to happen.
Coping with the Psychological Toll
When COVID-19 hit me, so did reality. We try not to think about the inevitable – death – because we wouldn’t be able to function. But in the past two years, I’ve thought about it more than ever – particularly how it would affect my family. I realized I’m not invincible, so I have to be careful.
I’ve dodged several new variants, but I’ve had my fair share of scares with cold-like symptoms. When I feel something, I get tested right away. Even though I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, I still feel panicked.
Admittedly, it’s upsetting when people imply this has all been a conspiracy or a joke, because it negates mine and so many others’ experiences. Was what I went through a lie?
It’s everyone’s worst nightmare, and I somehow managed to survive it.
Finding support groups online where I could talk to peers who went through similar experiences – which most people could not understand – was a big part of my emotional recovery. I wasn’t alone anymore, because I was able to tell my story to thousands of survivors like myself across the world. We developed a special bond.
At work, I’m often the only one masked, and even at family gatherings, I keep my distance. When my sons got sick, I had to send them to their mother’s right away. The potential of being that ill is always in the back of my mind, which is difficult to cope with. It’s not fun living with that fear, but I have to do what I have to do to be comfortable and protect myself. And I let myself feel gratitude for doctors, modern medicine, my family, and to be here today.