By Gayle Gupit Mayor
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
May 20, 2020 was the day Michael Flor returned home after beating the coronavirus. His whopping $1.1 million hospital bill made a splash in the news cycle following his then record-breaking 62-day stay.
A year later, while Flor does not feel that he has fully recovered physically and mentally, he feels reasonably well.
“I experience some shortness of breath, but have learned to relax, breath slowly and deeply, and my breathing returns to normal. I also experience some tiredness or heaviness in my legs but the more I exercise, the better my legs feel,” said Flor. “I have moments of anxiety, but generally am upbeat and look forward to living life fully.”
Despite his optimism and appreciation for his second chance at life, Flor continues to have moments where he loses his balance, forgets something, or stumbles over a word.
“I immediately think about COVID,” said Flor. “I think this will be what it’s like the rest of my life. There hasn’t been a day since I awoke that I haven’t thought about this.”
Flor feels that the past few months have been a constant reminder of the two and a half months that he spent at the hospital and at a skilled nursing facility.
“I’m reminded about the toll this disease takes on people as millions have been infected and countless numbers have died,” Flor said. “With so many of the deaths, there’s limited closure as the families can’t have their normal services to mourn their loss. It’s still difficult to fathom why so many people think this is a hoax, or, under the flag of freedom, think they’re giving up something by wearing a mask. And now, with vaccines available, so many refuse to get vaccinated because of some misguided belief.”
Flor’s wife, Elisa del Rosario, has been trying to cope with the psychological impact of nearly losing her husband. She is the deputy director for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and wanted to point out that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month—and that there is still a lot of stigma around seeking help for mental health issues.
Del Rosario has had a few sessions with a therapist.
“Michael kept relying on my memory of what happened, but after a while, I kept reliving it and it was just getting too traumatic for me,” said Del Rosario.
Although she had supportive friends and family, Del Rosario still yearned for an outside person to talk to.
“With trauma or with the isolation that people are feeling, I want people to know that it’s okay to ask for help and seek counseling when you need it,” said Del Rosario.
According to Flor, life is slowly returning to normal—short of being able to travel and see friends with the ease like he could pre-COVID. Ever since Michael and Elisa got fully vaccinated against COVID-19, their apprehension of flying has lessened.
“I do as much as I can around home, and my wife and I have returned to that easy going relationship we’ve always had,” Flor said. “While she’s still cautious about me overdoing things, I like to push myself to try and be better than I was before I was hospitalized.”
Flor has returned to work full-time as the associate director at Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, but goes into the office only twice a week.
“I continue to work and find that the more that I use my brain, the better my concentration gets,” Flor said. “I look forward to when we return to more regular office hours and we can redevelop the camaraderie that I enjoy in the workplace.”
Flor sees his neighbors on his regular walks with the family dog, but he longs for the social interaction that was normal before the pandemic.
“I miss seeing so many friends who, while we all don’t live far from one another, still aren’t getting together as we once did,” Flor said.
In the past year, Flor has been thrilled with the growth of his relationships with his wife Elisa and their kids.
“While we’ve always had a close, solid, caring, and loving relationship, this experience has brought us all much closer. Similarly, our relationships with family and friends have also deepened,” Flor said.
Further reflecting, he also recognizes how much he looks at life differently now.
“I appreciate and enjoy little things much more now than I did before. My experience with COVID has enabled me to help other COVID survivors and their families through their own challenges and I feel great about that.”
Flor lost 40 pounds after being hospitalized for 62 days. He experienced acute kidney failure in the 35 days that he was in a coma, and he had to undergo intensive dialysis.
“My physical therapists said that for every day I was in bed, I lost 1% of my muscle mass. But slowly, with a lot of determination, I took a few steps which, with the help of my therapists, family, and friends, led to longer and longer walks,” Flor said.
Flor tries to go to the gym three times a week.
“I find that if I don’t exercise regularly, I feel a little wobbly. … I’m also eating healthier with fewer carbs and more salads and smaller portions,” he said.
Flor was taken off of dialysis last year in June, and he described it as one of the happiest moments of his life.
“My daughter and I immediately began planning a camping trip to the Dungeness Spit. … It has a beach hike from the trailhead to the Dungeness Lighthouse—the entire hike is about 12 miles. I had to stop pretty frequently, but I was determined to make it there.”
He recalls the difficulty of being separated from his wife and family, and feels that the love and caring he received was invaluable throughout the time that he was hospitalized and in the nursing home.
“My family is my rock. Our kids were great—they helped in every way possible. I can’t imagine what it might have been like without their love and support,” Flor said.
He communicates with individuals in COVID support groups, and is surprised that so many have experienced backlash from their friends and families.
“It’s very depressing to think that there are so many people who dismiss the impact of this virus,” Flor said. “They even hear stuff from the medical providers that it’s all in your head.” Flor feels lucky that he has not experienced any social stigmas as a result of having COVID-19. People in his neighborhood and people who recognize him from the media coverage have been supportive.
“I’ve gotten messages of support from strangers from around the world who are also dealing with COVID, either personally or with a family member.” Flor said.
“I’ve been blessed.”
Having been through it all, Flor finds it very depressing that so many refuse to take the smallest precautions to protect others from the virus.
“While there’s no guarantee that you or someone won’t get sick, the simplest thing like wearing a mask and social distancing have proven to mitigate the spread. And while we all would like to get together in large crowds, whether that’s at a sporting event, a concert, family gatherings, or even going out to restaurants, when the chances of being infected are high, it’s best to avoid those types of things.
Flor believes that he is a better person after being on the brink of death and surviving. Armed with the knowledge he gained from battling the effects of COVID-19, as well as an understanding of the toll it has taken on the world, Flor has since dedicated his life to his wife, family, and friends.
“I promised myself to live as good a life as possible in honor of those who died of this disease.”
Gayle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.