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Richard Stevenson has only vague, dreamlike memories of the 18 days he spent on a ventilator, tethered between life and death while fighting COVID-19.
In his mind, instead of the intensive care room at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick where he was treated, the Vinalhaven man was often on a ship: the Maine Maritime Academy training ship, or the Vinalhaven ferry and sometimes an icebreaker in faraway Siberia.
Only hospital staff were allowed in the room with him. But in his mind, Stevenson, 52, was visited by his entire family, and musicians Eddie Van Halen, B.B. King and Buddy Guy also dropped by to wish him well.
In one of his strangest hallucinations, instead of the quiet sounds of the Maine spring outside the window, he heard two crowds of people that seemed to be fighting over him.
One group chanted, “Let him die, let him die, let him die.”
The other chanted, “Go Rich! Go Rich! Go Rich!”
“As I got closer to death, I thought half the world wanted me dead, and the other half cheered me on,” he said. “I would have to change my thinking to get the ‘Go Rich! Go Rich!’ crowd going.”
Now, more than a month after he was taken off the ventilator, Stevenson is well on the road to recovery. He credits his survival to the antibody-rich blood plasma transfusions he received. He was the first person in the state of Maine to get this experimental therapy for the disease.
These days, the hallucinations are just memories, something to remember and marvel at while he convalesces alongside his wife, Catherine Stevenson, at their Vinalhaven home. He’s been going on short hikes and even, in the last few days, working on his burn pile.
These small, ordinary activities seem like even more of a triumph after battling the disease for more than six months.
“It feels fantastic,” Stevenson said. “We’re incredibly lucky.”
Tests, but no answers
Stevenson, who operated New England-based Modern Pest Services with his brothers until they sold it a few years ago, is an active man who loves sailing and taking long bike rides. He’s almost never sick. But that changed in December, when he believes he was exposed to the novel coronavirus on a flight from Los Angeles to Boston — long before the virus became widely known in the United States.
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He, his wife and her mother had been in Los Angeles visiting family, but around Dec. 9, he flew back east by himself to take care of some business. The woman next to him on that flight was sick and coughing, and it wasn’t long before he got sick. He had chills, ran a fever and had diarrhea, feeling so bad that he essentially quarantined himself at his house on Vinalhaven.
Shortly before Christmas, Stevenson flew back to Los Angeles, but wasn’t feeling any better. On Christmas morning, he couldn’t breathe, and he and his wife went to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to try and get some help.
“There was no news at all whatsoever about COVID at that point,” Stevenson said. “I figured it was a bad flu, or pneumonia.”
His oxygen levels were low, and the hospital kept him in the emergency room for several days.
“They tested me for everything. They did a full scan and they couldn’t figure out what it was,” Stevenson said. “They did send in an infectious disease specialist, who did what I now think was contact tracing.”
They interviewed him thoroughly about where he’d spent time recently.
“Which airport? Which gate? How did you get from the airport to your car?” he said. “That raised a lot of bells for me. But they didn’t explain it, and at the end of the day, they let me go.”
At the time of his release, doctors told him it would likely be a long time before he recovered, and that his lungs looked as if he had had pneumonia — but he didn’t. In January and February, Stevenson was still sick, but then in March, he started to feel better.
He was over the hard part — or so he thought.
“At that point, the news came out about the coronavirus, and we thought, ‘Jeez. I wonder if that’s what I had,’” he said.
From L.A. to Maine
The Stevensons began to quarantine in Los Angeles in early March, like many were doing in the country, but their AirBnB apartment was on the 10th floor of a building and there were long, stressful lines at stores.
“We decided, ‘Well, it’s much safer on the island,’” Stevenson said.
They came home, on a sparsely-populated flight, fully outfitted with N95 masks, gloves and hats.
“The whole nine yards,” Catherine Stevenson said.
They got back to Vinalhaven on March 23. At the time, they didn’t know, but one of the emerging traits of the new disease seemed to be a chance of relapse among people who thought they were recovered. Four weeks after their return to Maine, Richard Stevenson’s symptoms came back, too.
Chills. A 104-degree fever. Diarrhea.
“It was the exact same thing,” Richard said.
Catherine Stevenson — who also had the telltale symptom of a lost sense of smell — called Cedars-Sinai, where officials told her to presume it was COVID, and to get him to a hospital. They took him to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick on April 19, shortly before his blood oxygen level plunged, terrifyingly, downward to just 37 percent.
“At the hospital, they told me they were going to put him on a vent,” Catherine Stevenson said, adding that at the time, she understood ventilators as tantamount to a death sentence. “‘You’re murdering my husband,’ were my exact words to the nurse.”
The nurse was kind, but firm, explaining that they had to get him more oxygen, fast. That’s when Catherine and their daughter, Lexie Stevenson, an actress who lives in Los Angeles, got to work trying to get Richard Stevenson access to an experimental therapy that some doctors are using to help people with severe COVID-19 symptoms. It’s called convalescent plasma therapy, and the idea is simple: giving antibody-rich blood plasma from people who have recovered from the virus to those who haven’t, hopefully boosting their ability to fight it off.
Stevenson had to wait his turn to receive a donation of the blood plasma, and his family was told it would be around two weeks. But Catherine and Lexie Stevenson put the word out “all over the U.S.” to encourage people to donate. Family members, people from Rich Stevenson’s sailing community, even professional basketball players all heeded the call. More than 5,000 people inquired about how to donate blood plasma, the Stevensons said, and the wait time for Richard Stevenson dropped to just three days.
That was a good thing.
“In two weeks, he would have been dead,” his wife said.
Richard Stevenson got plasma on April 27, a little more than a week later, the doctors started to wean him from the ventilator.
‘The luckiest person’
The Stevensons know his story could have gone a different way.
“I’m the luckiest person on earth, is how I feel,” he said.
If he had been a patient in a hospital that was overwhelmed by COVID patients, it’s likely that doctors and nurses wouldn’t have been able to closely monitor his symptoms the way they did at Mid Coast Hospital, where he was the only person with the disease.
They also know that if Richard Stevenson had had underlying conditions, such as diabetes, his outcome might not have been so good.
They urge people to take precautions, to wear masks and to keep a distance from others.
The couple also is asking for anyone who has recovered from the virus to donate blood plasma, if they can. The U.S. government is supporting a national expanded access program to collect and provide convalescent plasma to patients all over the country.
As soon as Rich Stevenson is up to it, the couple will make a trek to the mainland to donate blood plasma themselves.
“We’ll go, and we will donate, because we believe so strongly in that,” Catherine Stevenson said. “It kept Rich alive.”