At death’s door: Caymanian doctor survives COVID

"I could not inhale. That was probably one of the scariest moments I’ve ever been through."

Caymanian Dr. Colin Charles shares his COVID survival story after his near death experience. Photo: Alvaro Serey

Caymanian doctor Colin Charles was about to take his final exams in March for his specialisation in obstetrics and gynaecology, at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, when everything came to a screeching halt.

When he should have been preparing for his exams, the 38-year-old was instead left fighting for his life in a hospital bed, having contracted COVID-19 on the frontlines.

He was not vaccinated at the time.

Charles, speaking with the Cayman Compass recently, said that, due to the severity of his illness and the various medications he had to take to recover, he was only allowed to get vaccinated three months later.

“I can safely say the day of [getting clearance] I went running to the airport to get my vaccination. So, yes, I’m fully vaccinated… got both shots,” he said.

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He now aims to sit his final exams in December.

Scare of a lifetime

Charles, who is now working at the Health Services Authority, recounted his COVID-19 experience, saying there were a couple of times he felt like ‘this was it’ for him.

In fact, he said, his colleague, Dr. Xavier Brown, who was monitoring him over CCTV while he was on the COVID ward in Jamaica, shared the same fear.

“He called my family and other colleagues in a panic because, as far as he was concerned, after seeing the state that I was in, being able to take a very superficial look at my clinical state, he was fully convinced that I was on the verge of dying, and I was completely out of it, so I was unaware of that at the time. I was very weak… barely responding,” he said.

When he started getting sick, Charles said he knew his test may have been positive for coronavirus. Photo: Submitted

Brown’s call, he said, had a cascading effect of igniting his supporters, a lot of whom were doctors as well, and they kicked into action.

“They mobilised… got together and did everything possible to save my life. They were sending medications from Cayman. They brought medications from Montego Bay. They tried to bring in other specialists, they did everything for me to save my life… [That was the] turning point for me, at such a crucial point, due to those actions that my tribe, my loved ones took,” he said.

He said he was blessed to have received such support.

“I truly believe the only reason I’m here is by the grace of the Lord, the prayers of the righteous, of my loved ones who supported me and those who cared for me,” he said.

From stuffy nose to complete collapse

Charles said he was a resident at the UWI hospital at the time he became unwell and he believes that is where he contracted the virus.

“Working on the frontlines, even though you’re protected, you’re still exposed to a lot of patients that you see every day in environments that can sometimes lead to the possibility of contracting the virus,” he said, adding that he had taken safety precautions at work and at home.

Dr Colin Charles can smile today, but not so long ago he was not sure if he would ever see his family again, after becoming severely ill with COVID. Photo: Alvaro Serey

Charles said he remembers being diagnosed on 18 March like it was yesterday.

He said his symptoms started mildly, but worsened quickly over four days.

“What was initially a stuffy nose progressed to a productive cough, and eventually progressed to fatigue and generalised weakness, muscle pain, and then eventually I developed a fever and eventually a bit of laboured breathing,” he said.

That was when he decided to get tested.

The antigen test, which he did initially, came back positive for COVID-19, he said. He followed up with a PCR test which confirmed he had the virus.

He said he was sent home with instructions to monitor his symptoms. He used a pulse oximeter to monitor his heart rate and oxygen saturation level and he took multi-symptom medications, vitamins and minerals.

While resting later that day, around 6pm, he said his heart started to race to the point of cardiac arrest and his breathing became increasingly laboured.

“I noticed also my oxygen saturations began to fall as low as into the low eighties, 82, and I think at a point in time it crossed over into 78. I knew at this point, [I was] in pulmonary distress… that I needed to head to the hospital,” he said.

Charles spent two days in hospital and was then discharged, but he said he knew his clinical state had not improved.

Dr. Colin Charles before getting COVID. – Photo: Submitted

He was released at noon and by 11pm he woke up from a deep sleep struggling to breathe.

“I could not inhale. That was probably one of the scariest moments I’ve ever been through because the best way I can describe it is as if you were submerged in water and you just can’t breathe in. That’s what the experience was like for me. Then if I tried to speak it was even worse. I just remember calling 911 at the time and just mumbling ‘I can’t breathe, I have COVID, please send an ambulance’,” he said.

At that time, Charles said, there were no ambulances available because the hospitals were overwhelmed by the rising number of cases.

He said he called his friend, Caymanian doctor Brandon Bernard, to take him to the hospital.

“He came and picked me up, and found me in my apartment basically passed out because I was getting dizzy and weak… He found me, resuscitated me and put me in his car. He was fully gowned and protected as well at the time,” he said.

Charles said he was admitted at the hospital and his condition continued to deteriorate. He had trouble breathing, he was weak and could not eat.

“I remember being in the hospital and just lying in bed for maybe about three, four days without even moving at all. I would be awake. I’d know [I was] awake, but I would be so weak that I couldn’t even open my eyelids,” he said, adding that he lost 20 pounds in fewer than two weeks.

‘It could have been me’

As he slowly started to recover, Charles said he remembered watching a fellow patient get discharged and, as he walked to the door, he collapsed in front of Bernard.

“He tried his best to resuscitate him, with the team, with the responsive team and, unfortunately, he’s not here with us. He didn’t make it,” he said.

Charles said he is not a public person, but he wanted to share his story in the hope that it can save lives.

“The truth is it’s [COVID-19] taking lives, lives that may not necessarily need to be taken or lost. When you see the loss of life, especially [as] I did from the perspective as a patient. This is someone who had exactly what I had, they’re going through exactly what I’m going through, and I know very well that that could have been me,” he said, adding,

“It’s the type of traumatic experience that you don’t wish for anyone. You don’t want this to happen to anyone, not even your worst enemy.”

Charles said he had to undergo physiotherapy and rehabilitation during his road to recovery which is why he is urging people to get vaccinated.

“To anyone: For your own benefit, to not ever have to go through this. Sometimes, death in itself may not be the worst thing. Sometimes the burden of a disease and the long-term effects can be worse,” he said.

These are some of the meds and equipment Charles had to use while he was fighting COVID.

Charles said he was aggressive and determined with his rehabilitation, but he is still dealing with the after-effects of the virus.

“Today I’m in a much better place. I’m able to function normally on a day-to-day basis and for basic day-to-day demands. But I’m still not out of the woods. My pulmonologist says that recovery of my lung function could take up to a full year, if not more, and we’re four or five months out. So, I’m still recovering.”

He urged those who have not been vaccinated to do so while they can.

“Those realities, in terms of the dangers of COVID, still exist and as we open the borders, we become increasingly vulnerable to those risks,” he said.

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  1. This young healthy intelligent man’s story should make any unvaccinated person sit up and take notice. This will end up on island and my heart breaks for the needless pain the willfully unvaccinated will cause on themselves and others. I’m not degrading anyone as the situation is truly bad versus worse. I think we all know what worse looks like at this point.

  2. What an inspirational message from a medical professional who has personally experienced the horrors of COVID symptoms. His comments about not being able to breathe reminded me of my past bouts of asthma.

    Caymanians, please get your vaccinations. In the 1980s, I served as the first speech pathologist for the Lighthouse School. A friend wants to give me a retirement trip back to the Cayman Islands to revisit Grand Cayman, my old house, and the growth of the island. We have postponed the trip until it is safer for travel.

    It took me over a year to decide to get the vaccine, but after both shots I am grateful that I finally came to the same conclusion as the good doctor. The risk, if there is one, is much greater than getting vaccinated.

    K. Sullivan