Over the weekend, American website Propublica published a story that hasn’t left me since I read it, and while we mentioned it briefly here yesterday, it really deserves its own post. They interviewed a doctor working in an intensive care unit in New Orleans, and he provided a rare insight into what a very bad dose of the Coronavirus looks like. It’s not pretty:

“New Orleans had held Mardi Gras celebrations just two weeks before its first patient, with more than a million revelers on its streets.

I spoke to a respiratory therapist there, whose job is to ensure that patients are breathing well. He works in a medium-sized city hospital’s intensive care unit. (We are withholding his name and employer, as he fears retaliation.) Before the virus came to New Orleans, his days were pretty relaxed, nebulizing patients with asthma, adjusting oxygen tubes that run through the nose or, in the most severe cases, setting up and managing ventilators. His patients were usually older, with chronic health conditions and bad lungs.

Since last week, he’s been running ventilators for the sickest COVID-19 patients. Many are relatively young, in their 40s and 50s, and have minimal, if any, preexisting conditions in their charts. He is overwhelmed, stunned by the manifestation of the infection, both its speed and intensity. The ICU where he works has essentially become a coronavirus unit. He estimates that his hospital has admitted dozens of confirmed or presumptive coronavirus patients. About a third have ended up on ventilators.”

One of the things that happens in any crisis is that certain generalisations become almost universally accepted as facts, when they’re anything but facts. For example, it’s entirely true that Coronavirus disproportionately hits the older and the more sick – but that doesn’t mean that younger people are in some way immune, or don’t need to worry or be careful with their own health.

As was demonstrated just here in Ireland over the weekend, younger people are very vulnerable to a bad dose of Covid-19 also:

As of this morning, Micheal has been discharged, and is now recovering at home in Kerry, but the fact that someone of his age and general level of fitness was hit this hard is evidence of just how bad this thing is, and why it’s killing people in such numbers elsewhere.

Anyway, here’s the terrifying bit from ProPublica:

“It first struck me how different it was when I saw my first coronavirus patient go bad. I was like, Holy shit, this is not the flu. Watching this relatively young guy, gasping for air, pink frothy secretions coming out of his tube and out of his mouth. The ventilator should have been doing the work of breathing but he was still gasping for air, moving his mouth, moving his body, struggling. We had to restrain him. With all the coronavirus patients, we’ve had to restrain them. They really hyperventilate, really struggle to breathe. When you’re in that mindstate of struggling to breathe and delirious with fever, you don’t know when someone is trying to help you, so you’ll try to rip the breathing tube out because you feel it is choking you, but you are drowning.”

That makes sense, in a horrifying way. Thankfully, most of us never have to think about the mechanics of drowning, and so most of us, when we think about it, probably imagine that you just hold your breath under the water until you pass out. But that’s not the case. Breathing is one of those things that’s instinctive – eventually, even if you are consciously trying to hold your breath, your unconscious brain will override your thoughts and force you to breath in. If you’re underwater, that means sucking in a lungful of water and, well, that’s the end of you. It’s also why the Gas chamber, used by the Americans as recently as the 1990s, was such an abominable method of execution. People would try to hold their breath, and torture themselves. They eventually did away with it.

The thing about drowning, or the gas chamber, though, is that once you do breath, the torture is pretty much over, because you’ll lose consciousness within seconds. Not in the case of Coronavirus. Your body will still be getting air from the ventilator, but you’ll feel like you are suffocating to death, to the extent that you’ll actually try to rip the breathing apparatus from your own mouth, and to the extent that they have to physically restrain you. It’s probably the closest thing any of us would ever experience to being waterboarded, which was the torture method the US Government used in Iraq to try and simulate the same sensation:

In the most common method of waterboarding, the captive’s face is covered with cloth or some other thin material and immobilized on his/her back at an incline of 10 to 20 degrees. Torturers pour water onto the face over the breathing passages, causing an almost immediate gag reflex and creating a drowning sensation for the captive. Normally, water is poured intermittently to prevent death.

So that’s what a bad dose of the Coronavirus feels like, folks: Never-ending drowning.

Stay at home.