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COVID-19 changes outdoorsman’s view: Getting vaccine is about respecting people you love

·7 min read

Outdoorsman Patrick Kittle had a come-to-Jesus moment as he lay in the intensive care unit at Sutter Medical Center in midtown Sacramento, his body felled by an onslaught of COVID-19, and his mind frequently returned to what his family was going through.

The greatest regret that the 55-year-old father of two had, he said Monday in a virtual news conference, was how stubborn he’d been in not heeding his primary care doctor’s advice in early August to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Looking back, I needed to have more respect for my family and the people around me — you know, protecting them and all the things in my life that are near and dear to me,” he said. “I wish I would have taken that insurance policy of vaccination. ... Going forward, I hope I hold on to those lessons.”

The ordeal, Kittle said, strengthened his faith in God and filled him with gratitude for health care professionals like the ones at Sutter Health who saved his life. He also lamented for the many families nationally and worldwide who were not so fortunate as his.

More than 723,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization puts the global death rate at more than 4.9 million people.

Kittle, his voice still raspy, spoke about his family’s COVID-19 ordeal while still in rehabilitation with his wife, Shelly Kittle, sitting beside him. The owner of a successful sporting goods store in Colusa County, Kittle said he still needs oxygen and doesn’t know when he’ll get back to “normal life.”

“There’s been a lot of doctors I’ve seen through this, and I think I’ve asked every one of them,” he said, “and their standard answer is, (we) don’t have the crystal ball. So, I don’t either. But ... I guess I’m very hopeful.”

A loss of taste and smell

Shelly Kittle, 55, came down with a case of COVID-19, noticing that she couldn’t taste or smell the lovely dinner she was having with her husband around New Year’s Eve 2020, she said.

She went to Ampla Health, and after being tested, she learned she had it, the couple said, but Patrick Kittle sailed through a quarantine with his wife of 18 years, feeling only a little tired for a day or two.

The experience boosted his confidence in his immune system, he said, along with the fact that he frequently shook hands and talked face to face with people and yet hadn’t been sick with flu in so many years that he’d lost count.

He decided to get back into the swing of things when the economy re-opened over the summer, scheduling a mid-August business trip to Texas even as COVID-19 cases surged there and around the nation.

A couple of days after returning home, he said, he was so sick that he was curled up in the fetal position: “My initial thoughts or reaction was, ‘Darn it. It got me.’ Basically, it is kind of a blur, you know, from the time of that forward.”

In dire need of oxygen

Kittle arrived at Sutter Davis Hospital in dire need of oxygen roughly 50 days ago, said Sutter medical providers, who joined the videoconference call with the Kittles.

One by one, a handful of the many medical professionals who cared for him expressed astonishment and gratitude they were to be joining Kittle in that hourlong virtual space, preparing to release him to go home to his family. Shelly had been training earlier that day in things she needed to do for her husband’s at-home care.

“It was pretty remarkable seeing Patrick, after everything he went through,...all the hardships he faced, all the complications he suffered as a result of...COVID, and being in the hospital for such a prolonged period of time,” said Dr. Jacob Alexander, a hospitalist at Sutter Davis. “And to see him really break through and get to rehab has been really remarkable in ... an otherwise very discouraging time period.”

People still get really sick and die from COVID-19 despite a growing number of medications such as remdesivir, actemra and dexamethasone, Alexander said, and in the process of helping patients overcome aspects of the respiratory disease, some medications can cause other life-threatening illnesses.

That was the case for Kittle. COVID-19 caused blood clots in his legs and arms, Alexander said, and those clots traveled to his lungs, further debilitating his ability to process oxygen.

Doctors decided to put him on blood thinners to help control the clotting, Alexander said, but as sometimes happens, the blood thinners caused gastrointestinal bleeding. That’s when the Sutter Davis medical team decided to transfer Kittle to Sutter Sacramento for a higher level of care, he said.

Kittle also had to be put on a ventilator and moved to a prone position on his stomach for roughly 16 hours a day, a measure hospital teams across the nation have used to help improve the ability of COVID-19 patients’ lungs to process oxygen.

Huffing and puffing for oxygen

After leaving Sutter’s hospitals, Kittle moved to the Sutter Rehabilitation Institute where a team of respiratory, occupational and physical therapists continued to work with him in hopes of returning him home to his family.

The lengthy stay in the hospital affected not only Kittle’s lungs but also his muscles, his heart, his endurance, said Dr. Pacito Yabes, the attending physician at the rehabilitation facility.

“He has no strength,” Yabes said. “Just barely getting out of bed, there’s huffing and puffing and (he) required so much oxygenation.”

Lead therapist Christy Nguyen recalled: “I think the day he arrived here, he was able to walk between 20 and 40 feet on a few liters of oxygen.”

Since then, Kittle has done a lot of work with Sutter’s team on his balance, strengthening, overall mental well-being and understanding his body’s signs of stress.

“When his heart rate gets high, or his oxygen starts to drop, he himself is able to really feel that and has recognized that when he needs to take a rest break,” Nguyen said. “What we’re finding a lot with COVID patients is that we can’t push them too hard right now. It’s finding that balance to where we can push them so that they’re making the progress that they need to make, but also being able to take the rest breaks that they need. If we over-push, then we ended up having a bad day the next day.”

Thank you for saving my husband

Kittle, the owner of Kittle’s Outdoor & Sport, in Colusa headed home Monday with his wife shortly after the Zoom call with reporters.

“I just want to thank Sutter staff tremendously, for saving my husband,” she said. “There were times that was questionable, being intubated three times. There was great communication, I really loved having Sutter online health charts, I was able to follow his chart, the nurses notes, all notes from beginning to end. That was a lifesaver.”

She said many people have come together to support their family during this difficult period — and still are.

“I just take deep breaths every day and (take) one day at a time,” she said. “It was a struggle. My brother-in-law stepped in and helped out with the store. Pat’s family all came into town, and our employees stepped up. I also worked part-time at the city (of Colusa). I’m the city clerk there, so I had to balance that. A lot of family and friends are very supportive, helping take my kids to school, pick them up from football and soccer. People in the community dropped off meals.”

Kittle said he’s hoping that his personal story will help spur some other people who have a stubborn streak as deep as his own to go ahead and get the vaccine, and that’s why he did a video about his experience for the Colusa County health department earlier this month.

That has persuaded some, he said, but he’s heard from others who still don’t plan to get the shot.

“I entirely respect everybody’s personal decision to be vaccinated or not,” he said. “I am not really a fan of being government-mandated on this sort of thing. It’s a personal decision, I had to learn the hard way. So what I would say to somebody that’s not vaccinated is basically what I told them on the (Colusa County) YouTube video. I personally believe it’s a good insurance policy, to protect who you love and cherish in your own life.”

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