Rep. Carter shares COVID-19 re­cov­ery story

State rep­re­sen­ta­tive re­lates ter­ri­fy­ing, lonely jour­ney

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH FITE STAFF WRITER

On Mon­day, Aug. 10, Rep. Mike Carter was sup­posed to be head­ing to Nashville for a spe­cial ses­sion of the Ten­nessee Gen­eral Assem­bly when his plan to ad­dress coro­n­avirus is­sues at the state Capi­tol took an un­ex­pected turn to his own house­hold.

His wife, Joan, had tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19.

He’d been prep­ping for the spe­cial ses­sion for weeks, and his fel­low Repub­li­cans were count­ing on him. But Carter had been ex­posed, needed to stay home and get tested him­self

— not risk pos­si­bly in­fect­ing oth­ers, even though he felt fine. He called the speaker of the house and said he wouldn’t be at­tend­ing.

By Sun­day, 67-year-old Carter sat in the pas­sen­ger seat, cling­ing to a bot­tle of oxy­gen, as Joan drove down I-75 south from their home in Oolte­wah to Er­langer Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Chat­tanooga. Joan was on her cell­phone with Er­langer staff, who said they’d be wait­ing at the en­trance.

“The day that he fi­nally went to the hos­pi­tal, it was so emo­tional. It was like some­thing from a movie. They just swooped up and took him away,” Joan said. “I was just watch­ing him and I thought, ‘I won’t be able to see him again.’ That feel­ing of the un­known was over­whelm­ing.”

Look­ing back, Carter said he re­al­izes now that the hos­pi­tal work­ers un­der­stood what at the time he didn’t — how sick he was, how iso­lated he was about to be and how his odds of mak­ing it out alive weren’t good.

MIKE CARTER ON SEE­ING THE IMAGE OF HIS CHEST X-RAY: “When the nurse put it up there, I thought, ‘Golly man, you’re in trou­ble.’”

It’s been 46 days since Carter left Er­langer and be­gan his rocky jour­ney to re­cov­ery. He’s bat­tled un­ex­plained symp­toms, night ter­rors, lin­ger­ing brain fog and fa­tigue. He wor­ries about oth­ers with coro­n­avirus who are strug­gling to over­come their ill­ness with­out the sup­port that’s helped him.

He thinks about the three other pa­tients who en­tered Er­langer’s COVID-19 in­ten­sive care unit at the same time he did, but they didn’t sur­vive. He re­mem­bers friends who’ve lost their lives to the coro­n­avirus and won­ders why he was spared.

“That’s why I’m a lit­tle re­luc­tant to talk about how we had so many peo­ple pray­ing for us — be­cause I guar­an­tee you, ev­ery­one had ev­ery­body pray­ing,” Carter said. “I don’t want it to ap­pear that I was spe­cial or some­thing. … I don’t want that at all.”


Carter is no stranger to breath­ing prob­lems and hos­pi­tal beds. Af­ter grap­pling with asthma most of his life, he un­der­stands his lungs and their lim­i­ta­tions more than most peo­ple.

As a kid, he’d wheeze when­ever he at­tempted phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and ex­pe­ri­enced fre­quent asthma at­tacks. He started tak­ing daily med­i­ca­tions in his early teens and car­ried a res­cue in­haler at all times. Carter was able to play foot­ball but only be­cause his coaches were un­der­stand­ing and found ways to work around his con­di­tion.

He’s had sev­eral bouts of bron­chi­tis and was hos­pi­tal­ized his sopho­more, ju­nior and se­nior years of high school. When he was 24, the first year he prac­ticed law, a se­vere case of pneu­mo­nia landed him in the hos­pi­tal again.

“Asthma just af­fected ev­ery­thing,” Carter said. “I’ve never been able to run or do things like that and never left home with­out an in­haler.”

But as med­i­ca­tions ad­vanced over the years, so did Carter’s health. New asthma drugs that came out in the 1990s vastly im­proved his qual­ity of life and al­lowed him to man­age his chronic dis­ease bet­ter than ever.

He built a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as an at­tor­ney, busi­ness­man and for­mer Hamil­ton County Gen­eral Ses­sions Court judge be­fore join­ing the state leg­is­la­ture in 2013.

Be­fore fall­ing ill with COVID19, Carter said he’d never been in bet­ter shape. He spent the past 30 years with­out a trip to the hos­pi­tal.

Then, he found out about Joan.

Her metic­u­lous ef­forts to pro­tect her­self and fam­ily from the virus — which in­cluded a “rolling phar­macy” of face masks, hand san­i­tizer and gloves in the pas­sen­ger seat of her car — gave the Carters lit­tle rea­son to think they were in­fected. She was tested for COVID-19 as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure be­fore un­der­go­ing a med­i­cal pro­ce­dure and had just com­pleted a 2-mile walk when she got the re­sults that Mon­day.

It was too late to get a test that day, so Carter stayed home and went to an ur­gent care for a rapid test on Tues­day. He still had no symp­toms and gen­er­ally fol­lows the safety guide­lines, he said. Carter was shocked when his test came back pos­i­tive.

“By Wed­nes­day he was sick in the bed — sick, sick, sick. It was that quick,” Joan said.

Ex­perts say COVID-19’s abil­ity to min­i­mally af­fect one per­son and de­bil­i­tate the next is what makes the pan­demic so se­ri­ous and dif­fi­cult to con­trol.

“I had not had a fever at all. I think peo­ple like me are the ones that ac­tu­ally prob­a­bly spread it, be­cause you don’t know. But I al­ways wear a mask, san­i­tize,” Joan said.

She watched her hus­band’s con­di­tion de­te­ri­o­rate rapidly each day. To­ward the end of the week, pal­lia­tive care came to check on Carter and supplied sup­ple­men­tal oxy­gen, but he needed much higher doses than they could pro­vide at home.

“You could just see things ev­ery day go­ing south with him, and he didn’t re­al­ize it,” Joan said. “I kept try­ing to push water and Ga­torade to keep him hy­drated, and his urine out­put kept slow­ing down. I’m not a doc­tor, so I just thought he’s not get­ting enough fluid. But he re­ally didn’t need more fluid — he had too much fluid. He was shutting down.”

Carter ini­tially ob­jected to go­ing to the hos­pi­tal. Ex­cept for the ex­per­i­men­tal drug remde­sivir and a ven­ti­la­tor — which he in­tended to refuse — he didn’t un­der­stand what the hos­pi­tal could pro­vide that he wasn’t al­ready get­ting at home.

“I wasn’t go­ing on a ven­ti­la­tor. I was al­ready so weak, I just knew that I would never come off of it,” he said.

In hind­sight, he said he wasn’t think­ing straight. He agreed to go to Er­langer af­ter his nor­mally mild-man­nered per­sonal physi­cian bluntly told him his fate if he didn’t.

“I would’ve laid in there and died if they hadn’t just forced me to go to the hos­pi­tal, be­cause it just didn’t make sense to me, and I guess the rea­son is I wasn’t get­ting enough air,” Carter said, adding that the virus “knows how to at­tack the host’s weak­ness.”


Carter’s time on the reg­u­lar COVID-19 floor was short­lived af­ter he was ad­mit­ted to Er­langer. His oxy­gen re­quire­ments quickly es­ca­lated to lev­els that re­quired in­ten­sive care and he was taken to the COVID-19 ICU, where Dr. Aaron Co­hen, a crit­i­cal care spe­cial­ist at Er­langer, said Carter was placed on the max­i­mum amount of oxy­gen he can give some­one be­fore they must go on a ven­ti­la­tor.

“He was su­per sick,” Co­hen said. “His age is al­ways what scares us when we see some­body who’s on 100% oxy­gen through this high-flow de­vice, which can’t go higher than 100, and he had all the other symp­toms — fever, fa­tigue, mus­cle aches. He was one of our sick­est pa­tients right away at that time.”

Nor­mal air con­tains about 21% oxy­gen, and healthy peo­ple breathe about 8-10 liters a minute, Co­hen said. Carter was on a high-flow ma­chine pump­ing 100% oxy­gen at 40 liters per minute.

Carter said his mem­o­ries of the ICU are fuzzy, but the image of his ini­tial chest X-ray is etched in his brain.

“When the nurse put it up there, I thought, ‘Golly man, you’re in trou­ble. This looks worse than pneu­mo­nia,’” he said. “It didn’t take a doc­tor to re­al­ize it did not look good.”

He spent al­most the whole first night on his stom­ach, us­ing a suc­tion de­vice, which he equated to those found at den­tal of­fices, to draw mu­cus out of his si­nuses.

“I knew from hav­ing asthma and bron­chi­tis and pneu­mo­nia all my life — you got to keep mov­ing, you got to rollover, you got to lay on your stom­ach,” Carter said. “If you just get in there and lay on your back, that stuff will just sit in a place in your lungs and can’t get it out.”

The steroid med­i­ca­tion he was on — Decadron — kept him from sleep­ing and caused an in­sa­tiable hunger. At the same time, the coro­n­avirus made food taste ter­ri­ble, Carter said. Then, there was the “brain fog.”

“Brain fog doesn’t de­scribe it. It was more of a sep­a­ra­tion from real­ity, which when I re­al­ized that was hap­pen­ing, that ter­ri­fied me. I’ve made my liv­ing us­ing what lit­tle brain I’ve got, and the thought of not hav­ing con­trol over it was ter­ri­fy­ing,” he said.

Carter said the iso­la­tion wore on him the most. Al­though he

could video chat with his fam­ily and talk on the phone, it wasn’t the same as hav­ing loved ones present.

“It never dawned on me just what phys­i­cal touch meant … that’s the first time I’ve ever been that iso­lated,” Carter said.

He said the team at Er­langer was in­stru­men­tal in com­fort­ing him through those dark times, es­pe­cially An­drea Gil­liam, a crit­i­cal care reg­is­tered nurse.

“Fam­i­lies aren’t able to phys­i­cally be there and talk to them, so we take on that role, which puts a very emo­tional and per­sonal level to all of these pa­tients,” Gil­liam said.

For a while, Carter’s con­di­tion was “touch and go,” Co­hen said.

“He was on 100% oxy­gen for maybe three or four days. There’s noth­ing left to give you af­ter that. If you don’t have re­cov­ery at that point, and your lungs are get­ting worse, ven­ti­la­tors are the next step,” Co­hen said. “We were re­ally scared about do­ing that for him. The data doesn’t sug­gest that peo­ple do well with ven­ti­la­tors in his age group.”

Carter told Gil­liam how much he feared in­tu­ba­tion and that he would refuse a ven­ti­la­tor if it came to that.

“Then you’re think­ing, ‘What if it comes to that?’” Gil­liam said. “Statis­tics aren’t great, but what if you’re that per­son who makes it off [the ven­ti­la­tor]? Be­cause we’ve had some.”

Joan would meet Gil­liam in the park­ing deck each day to drop off items for her hus­band — ChapStick, flex­i­ble straws, Pop-Tarts.

“It’s a big empty hole that’s just hard to wrap your mind around not see­ing him, be­cause he’s been in the hos­pi­tal lots of times, and I’ve al­ways been there … and I wor­ried about not pro­tect­ing him,” Joan said.

Carter hit an­other road­block when af­ter sev­eral days he de­vel­oped liver in­flam­ma­tion as well, a sign of an ad­di­tional or­gan sys­tem be­ing af­fected, Co­hen said.

Gil­liam tried to keep Carter’s spir­its up by talk­ing about his­tory and travel, top­ics they both en­joy. She said it’s hard to com­mu­ni­cate with a pa­tient on oxy­gen through the lay­ers of per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment, but it helped that Carter likes to talk. She’d watch his oxy­gen drop dur­ing long spurts and tell him to slow down while she waited for it to catch back up so he could fin­ish his story.

“He’s ac­tu­ally su­per funny. He would joke around with me all the time,” Gil­liam said.

That same sense of hu­mor was how Joan knew Carter was fi­nally on the mend. He told her he turned a cor­ner, and she asked what to do with the non-re­turn­able black dress she bought for his funeral.

“He laughed so hard when we were say­ing that, that I knew he was feel­ing bet­ter. That was like medicine for me,” Joan said.

Af­ter eight days in the ICU, Gil­liam got to take Carter to the reg­u­lar COVID-19 floor.

“It had been a re­ally long time for me to have a suc­cess­ful pa­tient make it out of our ICU onto the floor, so that was a huge deal,” she said. “It re­ally helped me emo­tion­ally, as well — to have some­body so sick when you meet them and push with them. He was a fighter. He never gave up.

“Ev­ery­body’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent, but he was a very spe­cial man, very, very kind to us,” Gil­liam said. “You could tell he was scared, but he wanted to make it home and was will­ing to do what­ever it took.”

On Aug. 26, Carter re­turned home to Ootle­wah.


He’s not sure what time it was, but Carter woke up one day in a panic — his tongue was par­a­lyzed and stuck to his jaw. He scram­bled to find Joan but couldn’t.

“When I first got home, I didn’t want Joan out of my sight. I wanted her lay­ing there, I needed my hand lay­ing on her at all times,” he said.

Con­vinced he was hav­ing a stroke, Carter grabbed the phone to call his wife. But as the phone be­gan ring­ing, Joan raised up out from un­der the cov­ers.

“She was right be­side me, and I couldn’t think clearly enough to re­al­ize there’s a lump in the bed, that’s prob­a­bly her,” Carter said.

Joan started drip­ping water into his mouth and his tongue gave way — dry mouth is one of the many symp­toms that still plagued Carter — and he snapped out of it.

Al­though he sur­vived COVID-19, Carter faced a new chal­lenge. Night ter­rors weren’t some­thing he’d ever ex­pe­ri­enced, even in the hos­pi­tal. So far, he’s had about five or six, not count­ing the other days he would wake up over­come by anx­i­ety, he said.

“What do I have to be anx­ious for? I’m home, I’m out of the hos­pi­tal, I’m go­ing to live, I don’t have to be at work to­mor­row, we’re very for­tu­nate,” he said. “I’ve got ev­ery­thing I need. Why in the world would I be anx­ious or ter­ri­fied?”

Joan learned to rec­og­nize his breath­ing pat­tern be­fore the night ter­rors. She would gen­tly pat his chest to ease him out of them rather than wait­ing for it to build up to the point that he woke up.

“You’re think­ing, ‘This isn’t log­i­cal,’ but it’s still very, very real,” she said.

Carter be­lieves it didn’t help that he barely slept at the hos­pi­tal. Per­haps the ter­rors and anx­i­ety stem from ex­haus­tion.

He also said he watched too many YouTube videos once he got home. Those fu­eled the no­tion that his brain fog, which had im­proved since his days in the ICU but per­sisted, was the re­sult of a blood clot.

Carter’s doc­tor kept as­sur­ing him that the fog and anx­i­ety were part of a nor­mal re­cov­ery and would even­tu­ally sub­side.

“He has an ex­cel­lent le­gal mind, very log­i­cal. So when you rec­og­nize that you’re not think­ing with that same mind­set, he’d get so anx­ious. You just have to think, this is go­ing to pass,” Joan said.

Carter said the re­cov­ery at home is worse than the hos­pi­tal, filled with strange symp­toms that he can’t ex­plain that start and stop with­out warn­ing.

“My tem­per­a­ture reg­u­la­tion has been a re­ally se­ri­ous is­sue,” he said. “A fever, that’s noth­ing like this. Don’t con­fuse your­self. This is as though some­one is heat­ing you from the in­side. If I’m in a mi­crowave oven, this is how I would feel. And when I would get so hot that I would be ready to pass out, the ther­mome­ter would say my tem­per­a­ture was nor­mal.”

Those feel­ings cause him to sweat pro­fusely, but he said the per­spi­ra­tion felt oilier than nor­mal sweat. He only felt com­fort­able when the ther­mo­stat was be­tween 64 and 66 de­grees.

Then, for a while, his left foot hurt to the point he could barely stand on it. One day he stepped out of the shower and it just stopped out of nowhere, Carter said.

“It started like a light switch, and it left like a light switch, and that is freaky,” he said. “Nor­mally when you’re sick, it starts off bad but then gets bet­ter af­ter about three days, maybe five if it’s re­ally bad. But with this, you’ll be good for three days and then sud­denly you’re so ill you don’t feel like you can do any­thing.”


Carter had a stretch of good days the last week of Septem­ber.

A friend brought a con­tract by one morn­ing for him to read and he felt like his “mind was back.”

Then, he ven­tured out to the back­yard and up to the shop to ser­vice his trac­tor. Nor­mally that’s a 15-minute job, but he took his time, wanted to make sure he didn’t mess some­thing up. He got hot and started to sweat. But this time, he rec­og­nized what was com­ing out of his body.

“It was per­spi­ra­tion. It wasn’t that oily goo,” he said. “So to me, that was a sign that what­ever was messed up in me in­side had cor­rected.”

He worked for about 45 min­utes be­fore he started back to­ward the house. He was tired, but said he felt oth­er­wise nor­mal.

These days, he said he’s most con­cerned about oth­ers out there go­ing through what he did with­out a sup­port sys­tem.

“We had a lot of sup­port. I don’t think you could have much more sup­port than we had, and I’m just thank­ful for it. But what in the world would we have done if we hadn’t? And I think the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple go­ing through this haven’t had that sup­port.”

Carter said he keeps think­ing the pan­demic will be over in 60 days, but then an­other 60 days go by and it shows no sign of slow­ing. Now, he just says he doesn’t know what the fu­ture holds.

He re­called a time in law school in Mem­phis when an earth­quake hit. They saw pic­tures bounc­ing off the walls and ran out­side the apart­ment just to see oak trees tow­er­ing over them and won­der­ing if they were go­ing to fall.

“It was that feel­ing of even the earth isn’t safe any longer, and this is the bi­o­log­i­cal sim­i­lar­ity to that. You don’t know what’s com­ing next,” he said.

The Gen­eral Assem­bly is sup­posed to start meet­ing again in Jan­uary, but he doesn’t think the law al­lows mem­bers to meet re­motely. Cases of COVID-19 re­in­fec­tion have al­ready been re­ported. With­out a vac­cine, it’s pos­si­ble he could catch the coro­n­avirus again.

“We have re­ally been through it, and I don’t want sym­pa­thy for that,” he said. “What I want — if there are peo­ple out there that have re­ally been through it, and don’t have a way to vent that — is for them to know they’re not crazy. And to know that they are go­ing to get well, and they are go­ing to be bet­ter, and here’s what worked for me … Some­body just to com­mis­er­ate with.”

“I don’t want any­body to think we’re bet­ter than any­body else and that’s how we got out of it. We didn’t. We’re just lucky,” he said. “But if we can help peo­ple in some way, then we ought to do that.”

“We had a lot of sup­port. I don’t think you could have much more sup­port than we had, and I’m just thank­ful for it. But what in the world would we have done if we hadn’t? And I think the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple go­ing through this haven’t had that sup­port.” – MIKE CARTER


Ten­nessee state Rep. Mike Carter poses for a por­trait Sept. 28 in Oolte­wah. Carter, who is re­cov­er­ing from a bout with COVID-19 that put him in the ICU, re­called the lone­li­ness of his time in the hos­pi­tal as one of the most dif­fi­cult things about his treat­ment.


Mike Carter and his wife Joan sit for a por­trait on Sept. 28 in Oolte­wah. While Carter was in the ICU bat­tling COVID-19, Joan, who had also con­tracted the virus but was asymp­to­matic, was at home and un­able to be in Carter’s room. “Not hav­ing any hu­man touch, that was in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult,” Carter said. “When I got home from the hos­pi­tal, I had to make sure my hand was touch­ing hers as much as pos­si­ble.”

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