A Baptist music minister is emerging from a life-threatening encounter with COVID-19 preaching the gospel of social isolation.
“Do everything you can to stay home,” Tommy Shapard, minister of music and worship at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, said in a multi-part series of Facebook posts he’s calling “My Journey with CoVid19.”
His ordeal began with allergy and asthma-like symptoms on March 12 followed by nearly two weeks of missed diagnoses and terrifying symptoms. He was hospitalized March 25 and released April 1.
“I certainly had moments of real anguish, cries to God where everybody in the house might be asleep and I’m having a breathing attack and uttering, ‘God save me,’” Shapard told Baptist News Global by phone on March 30.
“I’m feeling good,” said Shapard. “I’ve been off oxygen most of the last 24 hours.”
He is the husband of Rachel Gunter Shapard, associate coordinator of the Cooperative of Baptist Fellowship of Florida. They have three children, ages 14, 10 and 9.
While feeling better, Shapard said he cannot forget how harrowing it was to be in the grips of COVID-19.
“I’m finding I have a little PTSD after all this,” he said.
Shapard said his recovery is expected to take two to three weeks, but he won’t be letting his guard down after that.
“I’ll probably quarantine myself until June because I do not want any hint of this again.”
Shapard shared about his experiences and why they have inspired him to take to social media to share his ordeal. His comments are included here, edited for clarity and brevity.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your series of social media posts?
Mostly to be informative and to let people know the ins and outs of this mess and what it’s like from an individual perspective to live with the fear of it. And being someone who had some underlying conditions with seasonal asthma, I wanted to tell that story. Secondly, it was therapeutic. I had to get all of that out of my head. And I wanted to make sure people understand the dire nature of some of these more severe cases.
You also shared about your struggle for the right diagnosis and treatment.
It was a cry for someone to listen. I had to be my own advocate. I’ve had asthma issues and bronchitis, so I was used to tracking that stuff down but, man alive, there was just a lot of skepticism. I had to use my own resources to read up on symptoms. I read some personal accounts before the advanced stages, so I kind of knew what to look for. And when that quick, involuntary breathing and gasping for air started, I knew I was in trouble. It was very lonely. I had to stand up for myself.
Do you have any idea where or by whom you were infected?
We have no clue. We went to (his daughter’s) dance recital the Friday before we left for spring break. We still had church that Sunday (March 8). We were already around crowds within that window of time. Then we went to Tampa and that’s when we started to limit our activity. We stayed at an Airbnb. We canceled plans to go to some big parks. But I could easily have picked it up at a gas station between Tampa and Jacksonville.
What symptoms convinced you this might be COVID-19?
My first symptom was I would breathe in and my throat and esophagus would be cold, and if I coughed that coldness would be there, too. I would try to use my asthma inhalers and my maintenance inhaler, and I couldn’t breathe all the way in because it hurt so badly in my throat and in my esophagus. I had shortness of breath just getting out of bed to walk to the sink.
I can speak to what I didn’t have. I didn’t have a fever, which is why I kept getting the pneumonia diagnoses. I didn’t have a lot of congestion in my sinuses. I had a little bit. I did have that freaky headache. It was on the scalp, that’s the only way I can describe it. Even my hair hurt!
You wrote about feeling better, then feeling worse. Was that part of it?
With this disease there were days when I said I’m getting better, and the next day it would come back with new vengeance. There were a couple days where I felt I turned a corner but then that difficulty breathing was back, and it would be worse. I literally just had to verbally moan to get through that because it’s like drowning. A couple days later I would sense improvement and the next day, bam.
Who were the heroes in this story?
The PA (physician’s assistant) who said you need to go to the ER and said she was calling them for me. She was an advocate and I hadn’t had that for almost two weeks. There was a nurse who got me oxygen really quickly and got the ball rolling.
When they took me upstairs to the ICU there was this team of nurses, doctors and technicians. It was like my own pit crew. They were just beaming with energy and grace and they greeted me with my name: “Tommy, we’ve got this. You’re good.” They restored my lungs and saved me from going on that ventilator.
You said the COVID-19 wing looked like something out of a movie. Can you elaborate?
It was like they took part of the ER and created temporary walls with dividers. You had a lot of taped-up black material sealing it off. There were a bunch of air cleansers – machines everywhere – and of course the personnel down there had the helmets and the masks and all that kind of thing. And the other piece of it was that I was the only one in there at that time.
Was COVID-19 your official diagnosis?
When the ER doctor talked to me after hours of testing, she said, “your chest x-ray shows that you have COVID lungs.” That wasn’t an official diagnosis, but those were her first words. But then they conducted the COVID test and I got my results back – it was positive.
What advice do you have for others?
From the medical side, I think just pay attention to your own body, be in touch with your primary doctor and get tested. One of the real positives right now is that those things are opening up more and more. Here in Jacksonville, you don’t have to have a fever (to be tested) anymore.
How about the spiritual side?
Where to start? Songs were a large part of helping me with loneliness and isolation. Singing inside my head certain tunes, certain words, certain choral anthems, that kind of thing. There is a song, “Shepherd Me, O God,” that I would sing, and a number of other tunes that I don’t recall.
And sometimes it wasn’t my choice. A melody would just come into my brain and that would provide a sense of calming and centering for me.
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