JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas — A nearly fatal bout with COVID-19 drove the Harris family to do something they had been on the fence about before. They got the vaccine.
With a wife and three sons, Tim Harris was not willing to take another gamble with his life.
“I’ve been in rocket attacks in Afghanistan, motorcycle and car accidents, and gun shots at the club, but I never had that feeling of impending doom,” said Harris, a mobilization and planning specialist, U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, and Army retiree. “There were many moments when I thought I was going to die from COVID.”
As with most people, the symptoms started gradually, he said. He woke the morning of June 15, 2020, with body chills, aches and a headache, and immediately went for a COVID test. He received word he was positive the next day. While he hoped for mild symptoms, he soon began to decline. He lost his appetite, had difficulty breathing and suffered from hallucinations as his fever spiked to 104.
“I felt so bad one night, I told my wife to call 911,” he said. “It was the scariest moment of my life.”
On June 25, the ambulance crew wheeled him away, leaving his wife, Dionne, to wait and pray. At that time, patients were unable to have any visitors with them in the hospital unless in the most dire of conditions.
“I felt so helpless,” Dionne said. “As a helpmate, that is a hard emotion to accept. I prayed, then grabbed the camera and began taking pictures because I wasn’t sure if that was the last time I would ever physically see him again.”
Harris was admitted to Brooke Army Medical Center and, despite interventions, became increasingly worse. One night, exhausted and gasping for breath, Harris called his wife in desperation.
“Help me,” he pleaded with his wife. “I can’t breathe. Help me.”
“I got off the phone and told God, ‘I’m ready. I am so tired,’” he said, choking up. “It was so much on the body, I couldn’t take it anymore. The harder I tried to live, the more I was dying.”
Alarmed by her husband’s tone, Dionne did her best to stay calm. “I knew I needed to keep it together and get him some help,” she said.
She immediately called the nurses’ station. “Within minutes, his physician called me,” Dionne said. “He informed me that Tim would need to be intubated that evening or he would not survive through the night.”
Shortly after, Harris’ care team inserted a breathing tube and placed him on a ventilator. He knew of several people who did not wake up after that type of intervention, and prepared himself for that same fate. “Just before they put me under, I asked myself, ‘Is this the end?’ I asked God to forgive me for all my sins and begged him to take care of my family.”
As the doctors explained to Harris, a mechanical ventilator partially or fully takes over the breathing process, helping to support patients as they battle severe respiratory symptoms. According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics in July 2020, approximately 2.5 percent of patients require mechanical ventilation while their body fights COVID-19. While further data is needed, current literature indicates that patient mortality for those needing ventilation ranges between 35 and 40 percent.
“We continue to see many very sick patients with COVID-19 hospitalized, admitted to the ICU, intubated for ventilator support, and even needing extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (heart-lung support) in an attempt to save their lives,” said Air Force Col. Heather Yun, infectious disease physician and BAMC’s deputy commander for medical services. “No one thinks they will be the one to need a ventilator or have a bad outcome with COVID, but we see this every day.”
“Unlike 2020, in 2021, these events are almost entirely preventable with the vaccine,” she added. “Mr. Harris is one of the fortunate ones to recover and be reunited with his family.”
Harris was on the ventilator for just over 24 hours. When he woke up, his first thought was one of gratitude. “I thought of my family and I thanked God,” he said.
Aided by the period of rest, Harris slowly began to recover from the virus and was discharged from the hospital on July 4, 2020.
“I’ll never forget when I first saw my wife’s face when she came to pick me up,” he said. “I was so excited to see her.”
Harris said he will forever be grateful for BAMC’s lifesaving care. “I received excellent care and appreciate the hard work and dedication to duty from the entire staff. I know they don’t do it for the accolades or the glory. They do it because they love helping others and I will never forget that.”
Harris isolated himself to keep his family safe, but after his isolation period ended, he reunited with his then-2-year-old son. “He was so amazing and loving,” he said. “He is normally very energetic, but that day, he just sat next to me on the couch and watched TV with me.”
Harris was hospitalized again a few days later due to stomach pain. It was a short stay, but worthwhile, he said. “My roommate had COVID and I saw the same fear I felt in his eyes,” he said. “God put me in that room for a reason. I was able to encourage my roommate, pray with him, and let him know he was going to make it. And he did. We both made it.”
While he had been uncertain about the vaccine in the past, Harris did not hesitate when offered the shot in February 2021. “I knew, even if I got COVID again, that the vaccine would lessen the symptoms,” he said. “I didn’t want to go through another hospitalization, and I wanted to do my part for my community.”
Since his illness, Harris has become a staunch advocate of the vaccine, especially after losing several of his closest friends to COVID. “If you have something against the vaccine, before you decide not to take it, do your research first. Don’t take someone else’s word for it. Look at the facts.”
While he’s come a long way, Harris still struggles with symptoms such as lung pain and short-term memory loss -- a small price to pay for the gift of life, he said.
“I’ve often wondered, ‘why did I survive,’ when so many others didn’t,” he said. “I’m not sure of the answer. I’m just trying to live a better life and not take anything for granted. But I would give anything to have another moment with my friends.”