Commentary: Walking the COVID-19 road: Fort Worth native writes of a journey no one wants to take

🕐 20 min read

Tommy Shapard grew up in Fort Worth, the son of Charlie and Carolyn Shapard, and was a member of Broadway Baptist Church. His father is a former director of human resources for the City of Fort Worth.

Shapard is currently Minister of Music and Worship at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He also is director of Choral and Vocal Activities at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

He graduated from Southwest High School and earned a Bachelor of Music Education (Vocal/Choral) from Baylor University in Waco in 1997; a Master of Divinity (Worship/Baptist Studies) from Emory University in Atlanta in 2004; and a Master of Music (Music Performance, Conducting) from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville in 2016. He studied Ethnomusicology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, and is studying for a doctorate in pastoral music at Southern Methodist University.

Shapard says the names in this article are fictional to protect the identity of the real people involved. And because of his illness, the times may or may not be completely accurate.

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This article is a combination of a series of Facebook posts by Shapard while still in the hospital.

Rachel Shapard is awaiting test results. The children have no symptoms and the doctors suspect they will only be carriers.

Shapard was discharged from the hospital April 1.

Personal editor’s note: Associate Editor Paul Harral and his wife Harriet were members of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church before they moved to Fort Worth, where they worked with Tommy Shapard when he was in the Broadway Baptist Church youth group.

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From Tommy Shapard:

I developed seasonal asthma when we moved to Jacksonville, Florida, in 2008. This means I typically get bronchitis twice a year due to allergies. Depending on the mold spore count any given fall or spring, the severity of my allergic asthma varies.

That also makes me more vulnerable than others to the COVID-19 virus. My encounter with the disease is not what most people experience, but some people will walk that road.

It is a story of death or breath, and people need to wake up to it.

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As my family and I returned from a short spring break trip to Tampa, Florida, on March 12, I first sensed symptoms consistent with my allergic asthma.

The Shapard Five – Tommy, 45, Rachel 44, Drew, 14, Kate, 10, and Mac, 9 – started our social distancing on March 13, as much as we could. We stayed inside our house more than was required, even at that date.

By Sunday afternoon, March 15, I decided I needed to visit an urgent care clinic. I was feeling worse that evening, so I was prescribed a Z-pack and prednisone. I had some chills but no fever.

By the next day, after one dose of the prednisone, my “asthma” felt much different.

There was a harsh, dry cough. My throat and esophagus took on a cold, cutting sensation whenever I took a breath. This was a sensation I had never felt before with my asthma/bronchitis.

The cough, which was infrequent, was brutal.

My fever was still non-existent, but I had aches and developed a creeping headache across my scalp. It was like I had an electrical current that randomly turned on and off. It was simply awful.

Over the next couple of days, I did everything I knew to do to control my symptoms – rest and remain quiet. The cough worsened. After doing some reading on COVID-19, I stopped using the prednisone. I also began using Tylenol rather something else.

Wednesday, March 18, I visited my primary care physician. He took chest X-rays and added Doxycycline to my antibiotic regimen.

My days of trying to keep my cough down, resting, and staying hydrated continued.

However, I had a new symptom – periodic episodes of shortness of breath that manifested itself with short, quick grasps for air that physically made me moan and made me feel like I was suffocating.

We added a nebulizer, which was also a terrible decision. Any use of aerosol medicine spreads COVID-9 in the lungs and into the air despite giving a sense of short relief.

Because of my “singer’s” lungs and practice of breathing techniques on a regular basis, I began employing some short breathing techniques to quiet the spasms. I learned to control them, but the spasms were still frightening.

On Friday, March 20, my primary doctor took my chest X-ray again. This time, along with another consult from a doctor in the office, my doctor sent me to an emergency room because of signs pointing to pneumonia.

I explained my case and was reluctantly accepted. No fever, they said, but we’ll see you. It was the most frustrating visit I have ever had with a medical professional.

I was quickly dismissed.

The chest X-ray in the ER confirmed I had “mild” pneumonia, but I did not qualify for a COVID-19 test because I had no fever, despite worsening symptoms and two antibiotics that did not improve any part of the situation.

The doctor could also clearly see I could not physically walk without shortness of breath. He sent me home with a high-powered cough medicine and a decongestant. I was told to rest and hydrate.

I felt some improvement over the weekend. Perhaps I’d actually see this through – I was hopeful through Monday, March 23. Maybe the old, grumpy ER doctor knew something?

COVID-19, however, attacks in a spiral fashion, from day to day. One day you think you might be on the verge of beating it, until the next day when it returns fiercer than ever.

By Wednesday, March 25, the breathing-issues became more intense and concerning. I signed up for Telescope and visited with a local physician’s assistant who convinced me to go to the ER. I went to another ER this go around.

The PA said she would call ahead, let the staff know about our conversation, and that she would tell them to admit me.

She is the first superhero in this tale.

I drove myself to the ER and arrived around 8 p.m. I could barely walk. I could barely talk. I barely breathed.

My walk from the parking lot to the ER checkpoint exacerbated my quick, involuntary breathing spasms.

For me, this is one of the truly evil symptoms of this virus. You drown. You can’t talk. You can’t move. But I had to get to the checkpoint 50 yards away. I put one foot in front of the other.

In a swift move, I was taken to the COVID section of the ER. The makeshift wing looked straight out of a movie. It was eerie, but necessary. The nurse was fantastic.

My oxygen level was 85. (Normal pulse oximeter readings usually range from 95 to 100 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic. Values under 90 percent are considered low.)

I was quickly given oxygen. I was finally relieved that someone had given attention to my suffering and cry for medical help in a way that I sensed I needed it for days!

Up to this point, the physicians I encountered did not know what to do with me. They were not prepared for COVID-19.

Things were finally different, it appeared. I knew it would just be a few hours, and I’d be admitted to a room for pneumonia/COVID-19 care and my lungs would begin to feel better in a couple of days.

What transpired from this point onward, though, was frightening, surreal, and ultimately, miraculous.

Little did I understand what I was about to go through and that I may have seen my family that evening for the last time. Ever.

So, for the moment, in the makeshift triage room that Wednesday night, I was content, wearing a nasal cannula supplying oxygen, which was blowing at full force. I was on a gurney, resting. I had an actively concerned nurse I’ll call Danielle. A second nurse would enter and ask questions on occasion. Two technicians conducted new chest X-rays and others continued taking my vitals.

I was physically and emotionally content for the first time in about 12 days.

While I closed my eyes to rest for a second, I overheard Danielle in conversation with a second person about moving me upstairs. The nurses wear a kind of phone/device clipped on the hip or shoulder, so it was somewhat easy to overhear.

“Yes,” I thought, “I’m finally going to get admitted and rest in my own room with oxygen.” The only other words I could decipher were “to intubate.” While it caused concern for me – I’m not going to lie – I knew that some people with COVID-19 had to be intubated so maybe they were putting me in a room to prepare for just about anything. After all, these rooms are isolated rooms dedicated to COVID-19, rooms limited to patients like me.

After some time, I was transported to my second room using a secure COVID elevator. The room appeared to be an ER surgical room that would function as a kind of prep room for me. I asked one of the technicians, “Is this my room?” I didn’t get an answer.

The room was hot; it was not a permanent room for a patient. That became evident, quickly.

I complained to get the A/C turned lower. My shortness of breath increased, as well as my fear. Instinctively, I knew something was different. I immediately became uncomfortable and anxious. (I felt like a dog on a veterinarian’s examination table.)

The nurse switched me to a high capacity oxygen cannula that was accompanied with warm air. The air flow was swift; I was at 50% usage capacity.

Over the next couple of hours, I was scanned, tested, poked, prodded, interviewed, etc. One nurse, Aaron, went through an entire detailed questionnaire related to my COVID symptoms. That lasted 20 minutes, at least. Data on the virus is still be collected, you see.

The medical field and scientists are hungry to know more.

They are the superheroes.

By this time, the hour was late, and no one was in the room, except for Aaron. He kept telling me, “When you get through this, you are going to come back here in the summer, and we will celebrate your birthday. We are going to party!”

Eventually, Aaron disappeared too.

I was alone.

By 4:30 a.m. (or so), the ER doctor I initially met entered the now cooled room.

She looked at me directly and said, “Mr. Shapard, your lung disease is bad. You have COVID lungs – no doubt – and they are the worst I’ve seen. Your lungs are almost completely white on the X-ray. Your numbers continue to increase, and we will not have the capacity to give you oxygen any longer. You need to get your business in order. Call your wife. She needs to bring your kids. You will likely be on a ventilator in two hours.”

I asked, “How long will I be on the vent?” The doctor replied, “Possibly several weeks.”

Since I was unable to speak, the doctor asked me if she needed to be the one to call my wife. I nodded. She left the room to make the phone call.

I was in shock. I was scared, shaken, paralyzed. I was alone.

This isn’t real.

I’m going to die.

Silence in the room and silence in my brain. I was frozen.

As hospital personnel came in and out of my room, I came to and began asking questions, “How long do you think I’ll be on the vent?” Each person answered differently, “One week,” “14 days,” “We really just don’t know.”

“Why do I have to go on the vent?”

Your body needs to be suspended, letting the machine breathe for you while we fight the virus.

“What’s the likelihood I live?”

Everyone would simply stare at me and eventually say, “We just don’t know.”

By 5 a.m., panic set in.

No word from Rachel. I started calling Rachel. I called Drew. I tried to use FaceTime because of the distinct ring. No answer. I understood. Everyone was asleep, timing Murphy orchestrated himself.

It dawned on me that by the time family and friends wake up across the country on this Thursday morning, March 26, I might be on a ventilator, perhaps never to be heard from again. A COVID-19 stat.

So, I began making short videos that quickly explained the situation, expressed my sincere love, gratitude and friendship, and asked everyone to take care of my dear family and to take care of one another.

I texted a video to Rachel and our children; my parents; and my brothers, Rob and Scott. I sent videos to coworkers, colleagues, and some close friends.

I have not watched these videos. Maybe one day I will. My heart can’t take it right now.

Unthinkable images passed through my head of the hours, days, weeks, and years I’d miss. I began to cry. I thought of my extended family, my in-laws, my church families at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville; Second Baptist Church in Lubbock; First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Georgia; Cannon UMC in Snellville, Georgia; Gray Memorial UMC in Tallahassee, Florida; and, of course, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth.

I thought of my students at Florida State College and the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

I thought of so many things in a matter of minutes.

By 6:30 a.m., two technicians entered the room and rolled my bed to a secure COVID elevator.

“Mr. Shapard, let’s get you in one of our comfortable beds. We’re going to the 8th floor and an awesome team is there waiting for you to make you better today.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

Now, for my favorite part.

I get to tell you about the amazing people who saved my life.

I am writing through teary eyes, because this part of the story is nothing short of medical innovation and wonder, of incredible people who are brave and compassionate.

As the small crew rolled me off the secure COVID-19 elevator onto the 8th floor – also known as COVID ICU – and away from the nightmare that transpired downstairs, I was swarmed by a team of nurses, doctors, technicians and others, a group that seemed to number 20 people or so.

Each team member had his or her individual responsibilities. It was like I had my own pit crew.

The collective swarm and movements were intentional, professional and confident. This team was some kind of Dream Team of Expertise and Grace.

They smiled and spoke to me with encouraging words.

They said, “Hi, Tommy. We’re ready for you.”

They looked me in the eye and said, “Relax. We are here for you.”

They talked to each other clearly and intently. Their work, their smiles, and their love for helping humans get better chased away the gloom of the past several hours, if not days.

They shifted me from the gurney onto a bed that was like a super cocoon-like mattress that just seemed to hold me gently with reassurance.

The medical professionals’ actions and words went into my mental background for a moment.

I remembered that the more intense oxygen cannula remained attached to my nose. I was at 50%. I turned my head to the right and saw the ventilator. The screen’s message read, “On Standby.”

“Hey Mr. Shapard, we are going to start administering medicine. Your job is to lie there and relax.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

What happened over the next several hours remains blurry to me. I really don’t remember much except that the team that surrounded me earlier dispersed over a matter of hours.

I fell asleep often. Things were quiet.

I asked a nurse, “What are the next steps?”

She replied, “We are just continuing to give you medicine and monitoring your progress.” Again, silence.

And I seemed to feel good and at peace. My body was quiet, too.

In and out of sleep, I could see nurses through the window of my room, all decked out in their protective gear, headwear, masks, etc. Occasionally they would catch me looking at them. They signaled thumbs up with a smile – every time.

Throughout the evening, I continued to be confused by what I thought was a lack of activity and traffic. I kept asking the same thing. “What’s next?” The nurse would reply, “We’re just watching your progress. Your body is responding well to the medicine.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

Overnight, I woke up and found I had the basic oxygen cannula on my face; at another point they had removed it. What is going on? I went back to sleep.

As I woke up early Friday morning, I discovered the team was able to reduce my oxygen to a reasonable level, and my body was holding strong.

Throughout the day on Thursday, I had received an incredible dosage of two antibiotics plus the hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, plus-zinc combination. I was not aware of the planned treatment until Friday morning.

By mid-morning, they removed the ventilator from my room.

I was shocked. Amazed. Speechless.

The pulmonologist had signed off on me, too.

I was now under the care of a hospitalist, who asked me if I wanted to start selling pieces of myself to others, given the drastic 18-hour turnaround. I was moved out of ICU and onto the isolation floor, my own room – with a television and solid food and life

I was content. I was relieved. And, while I was still sick, I was safe.

On March 31, I sat in my room in the COVID isolation wing.

The nurses on this wing do absolutely EVERYTHING while risking their own health. They have limited (and basic) gowns and masks.

They are brave women and men.

They entered my room only one to two times a shift. They taught me how to function with some things in the room (i.e., turn off my antibiotic IV once the alarm beeps). We communicate a lot through the intercom system.

I am eternally grateful for these individuals.

My two hospitalists are so knowledgeable about the ends and outs of this virus, including the subtleties that impact an allergy/asthma patient like me. I asked so many questions, because I’m obsessed with knowing every little thing I can understand about COVID-19.

I’m feeling a little stronger and stronger each day.

There are finally some signs that my body is getting the upper hand. I have finished all medications. My oxygen levels have been fine but dip a bit at night. We believe that is due to not being on my complete allergy medicine regimen (I get Zyrtec here at the hospital, but I really need Zyrtec-D.

The decongestant, however, skews the heart monitoring, which is specifically important to obtain a clean reading while sick with the virus and the taking the malaria medicine.

I did my own PT – no one seems to want to offer COVID PT sessions.

Smile. It’s okay.

I’m learning the COVID humor from the nurses. We make each other laugh. I may be a bit guilty myself.

For PT, I walked a 10-foot section in my room, back and forth. I wasn’t fast, but it felt so good. I was able to take a shower for the first time in seven days. (For medical professionals, I did get to wipe down with the antibacterial body wipes on a few occasions).

I shaved, clipped my fingernails, and put on deodorant.

My nurse and I joked that I got a spa day at COVID South.

Again, smile. It’s okay.

My recovery at home will be two to three weeks, quarantined for 14 days, but I will likely stay wrapped in a metaphorical bubble for much longer.

Many friends have asked if I can point to the time when I contracted COVID-19.

I cannot, and the truth of the matter is most of us cannot and will not be able to,

Given the timetable, I could have contracted COVID-19 any time between the end of February through March 13, when I was asymptomatic.

How often I have reflected:

Was it at a concert? At the college before March 6? At a local dance recital for my daughter? At church during our final in-person worship service on March 8? At a gas station between Tampa and Jacksonville? Stepping outside to grab a stack of my mail?

See the issue?

Community spread is real, and it was already happening, likely as far back as December in our country. This is why our lack of mass testing back in January is hurting us now.

I’ve paid attention to COVID-19 as far back as December. As an asthma patient, a respiratory novel virus catches my attention. I listened to the scientists and paid attention to the worldwide numbers and projections. I practiced good hygiene long before it was called for.

Before March 11, the Wednesday night when the NBA shut down games and then the dominoes fell, my family was already practicing safe social practices as best as possible in a world that hadn’t stopped, yet.

My point is this: Do everything you can to stay home. Take at least two showers a day. Clean. Wash hands. Don’t touch your face. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Even then, you still might contract it.

But let me also offer these words: Most people who contract it will have mild symptoms (80%). You may have a stuffy nose, or a headache, or fatigue.

Do not lose sleep over my story.

What I hope my story conveys is the importance of the shutdown and the importance of protecting a number of at-risk people in our population.

This is why there is “hysteria” and “media focus.”

Death is an insignificantly small number when it’s not you. It seems distant in your myopic world view. The hysteria becomes real when death decides to step in front of your singular stare.

Finally, let me say how grateful I am for all the comments, emails, texts, phone calls, prayers, cards, and those of acts of love by you do-ers of goodwill toward Rachel and our children.

Tears fill my eyes.

Grace and love from so many are absolutely humbling. We humans can be amazing creatures who accomplish great things for one another.

Let’s keep up that kind of work, can we?

I am eternally indebted to so many. I hope I develop super anti-bodies to COVID-19 so I can help others come May and June. I do plan to donate plasma.

My Facebook posts – the original venue for this article in several parts – may have been difficult to read but they are reality.

Pain, rejection, anguish, and lament are just a part of being human as life, acceptance, joy, and celebration. We cannot – and should not – gloss over this piece of our lives together. We are people, and we should be in this together.

There are thousands more stories like mine – some resulting in recovery and others resulting in death.

Places like New York City and other developing hotbeds are struggling to handle the respiratory patients. I have heard from people across the country letting me know a loved one just went into ICU, or a friend was put on a ventilator hours ago.

Continue to remember these people. They are our fellow citizens.

Remember the Italians, the Spanish, the French and on and on.

The bite of COVID-19 is coming and we will need to be stronger than ever.

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