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Adam Interviews Ted O’Brien

Adam Interviews

Former state senator talks about COVID-19 and his brush with death

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Ted O’Brien spent nearly two months at Rochester General Hospital with weeks of that stay spent in a coma and on a ventilator.

COVID-19 sent him there in March and despite being under retirement age and a regular runner O’Brien’s lungs gave way against the virus’s attack.

But now the Former New York State Senator is home and recovering.

Tuesday, he sat down with Adam Chodak to talk about the entire ordeal along with his family’s effort to raise money to put more technology inside hospitals so patients can better connect with loved ones.

Here’s Adam’s interview with Ted O’Brien:

Adam Chodak: We’ll start with the question that everybody probably asks you, how are you doing?

Ted O’Brien: You know, I’m feeling really, really good now. I feel so much stronger. Even when I was discharged if you look at pictures of me coming out of the hospital on my way to rehab, I still had a little pink pail in lap because sitting up or standing would make me nauseous. Even now, four weeks later, the feeling of light-headedness and nausea is gone when I sit up or stand. I could only walk 45 feet at the most which I was pleased with and I now I’m walking almost a mile in the morning and at least a mile in the evenings so I’m getting stronger, I’m beginning to put back on some of the weight that I lost and overall I think my doctors and therapists think I’m ahead of schedule.

I was the first COVID-19 patient at Rochester General that was in a coma and on a ventilator and kept alive and so they so they didn’t have a lot of guidance or a lot of experience with how this is going to go and unfortunately a lot of people in that situation don’t have successful outcomes, but it’s been a good trial for me and a learning experience for the doctors and surgical teams that saved my life and they’ve been able to see what works with me. I’m really grateful for everybody that worked so hard, the dozens and dozens of people on a medical team that could help me recover and so yeah I’m feeling pretty darn good and I’m thinking of going to back to work in the next couple of weeks part time.

AC: What struck me about your sickness is that you haven’t reached retirement age yet, you run 5Ks, you don’t fit the stereotype of a severe COVID-19 patient?

TO: Yes, that’s true. I had been in better physical fitness than I had been in decades. I had my doctors talking about diabetes and I had started a pretty strict diet and exercise regimen where I was going to the gym virtually every day and when this hit I was very physically fit and every day I was running to a 5K to 5 mile on the treadmill and the other days I was doing workouts on weight machines and I was in very good shape. I think as a result my heart stayed strong and think that was very helpful.

The disease attacked mostly my lungs and there was some lung damage, but now I’m healing pretty well and so I have a CT scan scheduled for September 1st, they’ll see how much we’ve healed by then and the likelihood is that may lose some capacity in my lungs, but the doctors are beginning to think that it may not be particularly noticeable by then. We’ll see, but I continue to heal.

MORE | Former state senator Ted O’Brien released from hospital after long battle with COVID-19

AC: When did this all start and how did it start?

TO: I never had a fever and a fever was a tell-tale sign of a coronavirus. And this is the end of the first week in March so it was early on in the outbreak so I contacted my doctor who said you know you probably have a different kind of flu variant, come in and we’ll test you and they tested for flu which came back for negative. That night I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and passed out so my wife called 911 and I went by ambulance to Rochester General and there they did a COVID-19 test, which came back positive, but my symptom, my cough, for 3 or 4 days was getting worse and worse and worse and my wife drove me back to Rochester General.

I remember driving there with her and getting out and walking into the emergency department and sitting in a wheel chair and that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up 3.5, 4 weeks later. They needed to sedate me heavily and feed me with a tube down my nose and when you’re in that situation, you really need to be sedated and a ventilator kept me alive, but Dr. Shuyin Liang at Rochester General took the risk of operating on an active COVID-19 patient. And she and a physician’s assistant and respiratory tech went in and performed the operation and at that point I began to recover.

Without the tracheotomy being done I’m not sure I would have ever been able to ween off the ventilator and be removed from the paralyzed state that I was in. So I think some people took some risks on my behalf, the care I got at Rochester General was exceptional and the end result is that I’m getting better.

AC: Was there a point after you woke up when you realized how close you were?

TO: I didn’t know there was a Do Not Resuscitate order that had been signed and the doctors had begun to have some very serious discussions with my wife. Fortunately, I had begun to turn the corner right around the same time and showed signs of improvement and I did rally, but I didn’t know a lot of that until I was released from the MICU at Rochester General to a regular room and even then, the first room I was in right after the MICU, I was having trouble distinguishing between the delusional thinking and reality, but after about a week and being moved to another room and working with therapists and other things, my thinking cleared right up and it doesn’t seem like I’ve had any loss of any neurological function, I seem to be able to do everything I was doing before, I had a number of tests done by neurologists and psychologists and that’s all worked out and I seem to be making a good recovery.

AC: One of the unfortunate parts of this is loved ones can’t be in the room, but the medical team, they were able to put a phone next to your ear so your family could talk to you and you told me you don’t remember anything specifically they said but that one story…

TO: Dr. Adam Herman is the palliative care doctor that worked with me. My family and my sister and my wife were concerned that they weren’t able to talk to me or see me because of the visitor restrictions and so Dr. Herman landed on the idea of taking his personal cell phone in and putting it on the pillow next to my head so they could talk to me.

At that time I was having a very persistent dream that wasn’t reality but I was dreaming that I was trapped in a house unable to move and that I was so hot and exhausted and just tired that I remember saying out in my dream into this empty room, “I don’t know if I can make it through this night.” And around that time I heard voices from outside that house saying, “Yes, he’s in there, it’s going to be OK.” And in my dream I felt this huge sense of relief that overwhelmed me and it allowed me to relax and I slept more restfully, so after I was taken out of the coma I asked my wife, “Was my brother-in-law on the cell phone calls? Because I heard his voice in this dream. And they said, “Oh, yes. He was talking to you every day.” I just think, you never really know is that a real experience or what, but in my mind I think hear familiar voices was an important turning point for me and allowed me to feel like I could recover.

As a result, Adam, my wife and I started a fund called the Ted and Sue O’Brien Patient/Family Connection Fund. We’ve raised over $40,000 at this point and it allows the palliative care team, they’re collaborating with RIT on a project they’re contemplating and finding ways to increase the ability to communicate between doctors, patients and family members so if you’re out of town or if there’s visitor restrictions or those kinds of things, regardless of the disease, you can have a connection with your family because we believe that was really important to me and we believe that was really important to me and we believe it will be really important to other people as well.

AC: There’s an ongoing debate on testing and masking. What’s your take on that?

TO: I absolutely do have a strong opinion on the importance of wearing masks and of social distancing. It’s just incredibly important and I know it’s not convenient but compared to the path that I went down, the inconvenience of masking and social distancing compared to exposing someone, a love one, to a disease that could be very, very significant, people still are dying from it, people are like me, they have a long road to recovery and matched against the inconvenience of wearing a mask, it just doesn’t measure up and it’s just just so important to follow this advice from the medical community. And unfortunately it’s become a little bit of a partisan issue. It shouldn’t be. Just take these small steps to make sure those around you remain safe.

AC: Any other thoughts on this journey?

TO: I thought if I did get it it wouldn’t be too bad, but you just never know. It hits young people, old people. It affects older people more harshly than younger people percentage wise, but anybody can get it and taking these reasonable steps to avoid this particular health problem is the best advice I can give to anybody.

I did have the opportunity to get with one of my doctor’s just yesterday to visit both people at the MICU that I hadn’t ever interacted with consciously before who were so gratified to see me. It’s important for people working in that setting who don’t always have successful outcomes with people they’re working so hard to help recover and then they see me walk in of my own power and doing much much better, I think it was sort of a celebratory meeting for them as it was for me. I was so excited to see them.

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