In his 1872 novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, French author Jules Verne recounts the pitfalls and challenges Phileas Fogg endures as he tries to circumnavigate the globe.
But Fogg has nothing on Larry Wilcox, 74, of Hobbs.
Diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 26, Wilcox’s odyssey has already lasted longer than Fogg’s fictional experiences. And it’s a journey that’s still going on.
“The real story of this is (Wilcox) was probably one of the sickest of the COVID patients we’ve had here,” said Dr. Kelly Lawrence, hospitalist at Covenant Health Hobbs Hospital. “But he was strong. He never gave up.”
Wilcox’s battle actually began in the days running up to Christmas 2020, he recalled recently. Larry and his wife, Karen, went to Christmas Eve services at their church, but he wasn’t feeling well.
“I thought I had the flu,” he said.
They’d also been invited to a Christmas get-together out of town, but Larry decided not to go because he still felt under the weather. While Karen traveled to attend the gathering, Larry ended up spending Christmas Day in bed with what he still believed was the flu.
He quickly learned different, though.
He had another family member take him to the emergency room at the then-Lea Regional Medical Center on Dec. 26, where tests confirmed he had the novel coronavirus. His illness wasn’t serious, yet, and he was sent home.
When she returned home, Karen was tested and she, too, came back positive for the virus COVID-19. Doctors scheduled the couple to receive infusions of Bamlanivimab, an antibody treatment against the disease, on Dec.
“I got mine, but he got sent right to the emergency room,” Karen said recently. “I got my (infusion), but he was admitted to the hospital.”
One of the requirements for the antibody treatment is a patient can’t require supplemental oxygen, Dr. Lawrence said. Larry’s blood oxygen levels had dipped into the mid-80 — far less than the normal 95-100 percent saturation levels in a healthy person — so he was disqualified from the treatment.
Larry has little direct memory of the events his wife and his doctor were describing, he said.
“I was pretty shaky,” Larry said. “I really didn’t know what was going on.”
In most cases, Dr. Lawrence said, patients are diagnosed with COVID-19 before the most serious part of their illness. He knew Larry was going to get sicker before he started getting better.
Larry “was admitted to the regular medical floor, a COVID unit we have set up there,” Dr. Lawrence said. “About 10 days later, his COVID-19 was still getting worse. It had gone through the (upward curve) and was still” going up in terms of the severity of the disease.
Larry’s case was somewhat unique. His medical history showed a susceptibility to blood clots, which is one thing COVID-19 infections cause that can lead to death or complications including stroke and heart attack, Dr. Lawrence said. There are also concerns with pneumonia — the lungs filling up with fluid, he said.
All told, Larry spent 26 days in the hospital in Hobbs, including more than two weeks in the intensive care unit — through the changeover from Lea Regional to Covenant Health. Even then, his doctors determined he wasn’t ready to go home, so he was sent to Lubbock, Texas, to Covenant’s former Grace Surgical Hospital there, which had been converted to a COVID-19 rehabilitation facility.
Throughout his hospitalization and 40-days in the rehab facility, Larry couldn’t have visitors. That was frustrating to Karen, who’s only contact was through the windows of his room in the ICU.
“I’d called to check in on him, and he said he could see the ambulances and helicopters” outside his room,” she said. “I kept him on the phone and drove straight out here.
“I searched until I found the window he was in,” Karen said. “For days, that was the only way we saw each other.”
A high point of Larry’s experience was when he was able to leave the hospital in Hobbs for the rehab facility. He was improving, but was still so weak, he had to be helped into the ambulance for the journey.
“That was a turn-around point,” Larry said. “When I got out the door (to go to Lubbock), I knew that was important.
“But driving to Lubbock, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I was concerned, could I do it? I just decided not to worry about it.”
Almost immediately upon his arrival in Lubbock, Larry was placed on a regimen, continuing the breathing treatments he’d started in Hobbs, almost teaching his lungs how to breath again, he said. Other members of staff at the recently converted facility — Larry later learned he was the first patient admitted for rehab — worked to get him back on his feet and walking.
“They tried to get me to the door of the room and I couldn’t even get to the bloody door,” Larry remembered. “They finally got me walking with a walker, slowly going further and further.”
Another high point came when Larry was able to walk to one end of the corridor his room was on and back. That feat took about three weeks of slow but steady progress, he said.
“You don’t see it at first,” Larry said. “But after a while, you’re actually progressing.”
Along with those highs, there were the inevitable lows, the couple recalled. Karen, who was sick with COVID-19 and pneumonia herself, said hers was early on when Larry had decided he didn’t want a tube inserted into his lungs to help him breath.
“In a way, I haven’t worried about death,” Larry said. “If the Lord takes me, fine.”
But Karen sees it a different way.
“That’s easy for him to say,” she said. “When he signed the ‘do-not-intubate’ order, that was heartbreaking for me.”
Even today, almost three months after his odyssey started, Larry isn’t 100 percent. He requires a constant supply of supplemental oxygen and, even while speaking to The News-Sun, he had to pause occasionally, gasping as he simply ran out of breath.
Along with the physical aspects of his ongoing recovery, Larry is dealing with the emotional trauma of being that sick, including bouts of anxiety, Karen said.
“We’ve had a lot of doctors say, as sick as he was, a lot of patients just give up,” she said. “But he’s never given up. He’s been pushing himself to get better.”
Larry agreed: “There was some anxiety. But it’s a balancing act. It was little, tiny steps forward — I’m home about two weeks and I thought it was going to be easier. There’s a lot of lessons in it for me. It’s a lot of challenges, a lot of hurdles.”
If there’s one silver lining to this ordeal, Dr. Lawrence said he’s learned more about treating COVID-19 patients from Larry’s experience.
“I learned a few things just talking to him,” Dr. Lawrence told the News-Sun. “I’m learning how to treat the next patient, when to get that next patient to rehab. (Larry’s) experience is going to help with that.”
Being diagnosed and hospitalized early probably played a large role in Larry’s eventual recovery, they said. Too many times, particularly early in the pandemic, victims would be diagnosed but sent home if they didn’t have trouble breathing, for example, that immediately require hospitalization, Karen said.
“They would go home,” she said. “Then, once the breathing problems started and they’d come back, it would be too late.”
Though he still suffers, Larry is slowly improving. Dr. Lawrence mention he’d seen Larry just a couple of days before the three sat down with the News-Sun and he could see improvement even in that short a time, he said. But it’s still an ongoing battle, one Larry fights every day, both physically and mentally.
“You just take it one day at a time,” Larry said. “I want to get going, I’m an artist, I’ve got things to do. But I know I can’t do it.”