Paul Russell was driving back to Boise from Florida, by way of Houston. It was early November, and somewhere along his route, the long-haul trucker caught the coronavirus.
Russell, 63, knew he was sick by the time he crossed into Idaho.
“I didn’t know if I was infected with COVID or what,” he said. “My buddy was about an hour behind me. He caught up with me in Twin Falls. … He told me I didn’t look very good at all.”
The next few weeks are a blur, Russell said. He spent more than two weeks in a St. Luke’s Health System hospital, becoming one of 19 patients enrolled in a clinical trial to test a new drug for use in COVID-19.
Idaho’s fall surge provided more clinical trial volunteers from St. Luke’s than were enrolled in the entire country of Spain.
Now, Russell said, he can’t work anymore. The long-haul trucker has become a COVID-19 “long hauler.” He survived the virus, but it did long-term damage to his body.
“I’m gonna be on oxygen the rest of my life, according to my doctor,” he said.
‘She didn’t know if I was gonna make it through the night’
Russell didn’t want to give his wife whatever he had. So when he arrived back home in Boise, he parked and went straight to the couple’s travel trailer.
That Monday, he got a COVID-19 test. It was positive. He “hibernated” in the trailer for two days, he said.
But come Wednesday morning, he said, he was “really, extremely miserable, and I asked my wife to get a hold of transportation to get me to the hospital.”
The ambulance picked him up and took him to St. Luke’s in Boise. His memory is foggy, but he recalls being sent to the intensive care unit within hours of arriving.
He stayed in the ICU for four or five days, on high-flow oxygen, he said.
At one point, a nurse put his wife on speaker phone. She told him how much she loved him, “because she didn’t know if I was gonna make it through the night,” he said.
“That was the night I got the visit from my dad,” he said. “My dad’s been gone for about three years.”
One patient can help the world find COVID-19 treatments
The next day, Russell awoke to learn he was slowly improving, he said. He spent one more night in the ICU, then went to a room for less-intensive care.
He spent 16 days in the hospital, he said. While he was there, he enrolled in a clinical trial to test the medication tocilizumab, the drug in brand-name Actemra.
St. Luke’s was one of about 60 sites around the world to offer patients like Russell a chance to get the experimental drug between June and January.
“Sometimes, researchers look at a patient and like to guess, ‘This is definitely somebody who got the study drug,’ ” said Dr. Karen Miller, the principal investigator for St. Luke’s in the clinical trial. “Whether we’re right or not remains to be seen, but it certainly was something we did (in this clinical trial).”
Russell doesn’t know whether he got the drug or not. But every night a nurse would come in, hook him up to an IV and sit with him. At other times, a nurse would bring him other medications to take, or give injections to prevent blood clots. Some of them would spend “quite a bit of time” talking with him as he lay in the hospital bed.
“All in all, I can’t say enough about how great the staff at St. Luke’s were,” he said.
“I think it’s a really important piece that we can bring to Idahoans,” Miller said of the clinical trials St. Luke’s has participated in for COVID-19. “Because when we participate in research studies, the investigators who lead those studies have the opportunity to talk with experts all over the world and say, ‘Hey, we’re seeing this in our study population. Are you?’ So we’re solving active problems in real time.”
St. Luke’s Clinical Research Manager Cleary Waldren said patients who participate in clinical trials are helping advance science.
“It’s an empowering thing to be one of the 500, one of the 650 patients in the world that will help the entire world move forward in humanity’s understanding of how we approach this,” he said.
Toward the end of his hospital stay, Russell noticed a rapid improvement in his breathing. He still needed oxygen, but less and less of it, he said.
Russell made it home on Thanksgiving Day, at around 4 p.m., just in time to have dinner with his family.
“It was the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had,” he said.
‘The only one that didn’t have a toe tag’
Russell once thought the coronavirus wasn’t a real threat. He didn’t believe in masks. All that has changed.
“Before I came down with the virus, I was one of those jackasses who thought the virus would disappear the day after the election. I was one of those conspiracy theorists,” he said.
Instead, he was in the hospital with COVID-19 a week after the election.
“All these people that are saying that it’s fake, blah blah blah, they’re lying to themselves,” he said.
“COVID gave me a foggy memory, it gave me — I occasionally have speech problems.”
His scans show scarred lungs. He has pain in different parts of his body. He has dizzy spells. His heart races when he gets up to do anything.
He said taking a shower can raise his heart rate to 128 beats per minute — at his age, the upper range for vigorous exercise — and drop his blood oxygen to levels far below normal.
When he returned home from the hospital, he developed “what they call ‘COVID foot,’ ” he said. “The bottoms of my feet were cracking, and it felt like I was walking on needles.”
A course of steroids helped with that, he said.
Since he got infected on the job, Russell said he’s receiving workers’ compensation. But it’s not enough to afford house payments, so he’s selling his family home to move to a less expensive suburb.
After a life-saving hospital stay, his perspective has changed, he said.
One of his nurses told him that eight patients left the ICU the same week as him, but he was “the only one that didn’t have a toe tag,” he said. He asked her to take his toe tag and shred it.
“Life is no good right now,” he said. “Except for one thing: I’m alive.”