Gary Ong was well prepared for physical distancing and the other restrictions that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1999, he has lived on 6 acres of land on the outskirts of Mayer, Arizona, surrounded by National Forest and ranch land. “Everyone has acreage in my neighborhood,” he says.
For Ong, being isolated is a part of everyday life.
However, when Ong’s 94 year-old mother broke her wrist, he made the journey to Phoenix to help care for her. This is how Ong’s experience with COVID-19 began.
“I was there when she was discharged from rehab, and I stayed to help her settle back into her apartment,” Ong recalls. “I took her to doctor’s appointments and helped line her up with physical therapy.”
“I got a call four days after I got home. It was Mom’s caregiver saying that Mom was not breathing well and needed to go back to the hospital. They tested her for COVID, and it was positive.”
Ong immediately advised some of his good friends, whom he saw after he returned home, to get tested right away. Their tests turned out negative.
“For a while, I was fine, but eventually I started to feel sick, and went for testing. It came back negative. I kept getting sicker, but even the second test I got was negative,” he says. “I finally called 911 because I was feeling worse. I warned them that I might have COVID so they could be prepared. They took me to YRMC and that’s where I tested positive.”
Ong spent two weeks in the ICU at Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC) West in Prescott.
“My oxygen levels just weren’t where they wanted them to be. I was on 15 liters of oxygen for four or five days.”
Ong was told that if his oxygen levels didn’t improve, he would be put on a ventilator. He was placed in a prone position, on his stomach, to improve oxygen flow.
“Thankfully my oxygen levels started to improve. I guess I was oblivious to the fact that, for a while there, I was in pretty bad shape.”
Different for Everyone
Five other members of Ong’s family also tested positive for the Coronavirus. They are as certain as they can be that all of the cases trace back to Ong’s mother.
What is less clear is why each of the family members had such different symptoms. While Ong’s mother is in a high-risk age bracket and has an underlying heart condition, her symptoms were relatively mild and she fully recovered. Some family members had a cough, some had a fever, and one family member spent three days in the hospital with fever, diarrhea and difficulty breathing. One family member is still recovering. Ong is working on weaning himself off of supplemental oxygen.
Ong’s experience led him to contact Yavapai Regional Medical Center so that he could tell his story. He is hoping to help others as they navigate the often-contradictory information circulating in the news and on social media.
“I want people to know that symptoms can be very different for different people, like they were for my family,” he explains. “I want them to know that a negative test result doesn’t necessarily mean you’re virus free. It took three tests before I got a positive result, even though I was already feeling sick.”
“I wasn’t feeling bad, even when I was in the ICU,” Ong says. “What changed my mind? It was only one step from my bed to the bathroom. For two days in a row, I tried to walk back from the bathroom. By the time I got to the bed, just one step, it felt like someone was standing on my chest. I was told my oxygen level went to almost zero.”
“On Saturdays, I like to go to the swap meet in Prescott Valley with some friends. I’m still unable to go, but when my friends go, they wear masks now,” Ong says. “My friend told me that he’s been asked why they’re wearing masks. His answer is simple. ‘You must not know anyone who has had COVID.’”
“People who don’t think it’s real have no reference point,” says Ong. “They aren’t able to put a face to the health risk.”
Ong believes that once a person experiences the real-life scare of being sick, or having a loved one sick with COVID-19, their perspective may change.
“Luckily, our family has come out of this well, but I hope this will give some people some insight. I hate to see it downplayed.” Ong pauses. “This virus has the potential to affect your life and the lives of the people you love.”
“The numbers are there. We aren’t out of the woods yet,” says Ong. “When I’m clear to go out in public again, you can bet I’ll be wearing a mask too.”