Two percent better each day

By Kevin Tankersley

Q&A with Darrell Thompson, COVID survivor

Darrell Thompson wanted to catch COVID. He actively tried to contract the virus. That’s not as crazy of a plan as it sounds. Thompson’s wife, Tracy, a registered nurse, possibly picked up COVID at an assisted living facility where she worked. Darrell’s plan, then, was to get the virus from her, then they could quarantine together, give the house a deep clean afterward, and be done with it.

The problem was he never tested positive in the two weeks Tracy was at home. He was tested on several occasions, with each test coming back negative.

But Thompson was eventually infected, though he’s not sure exactly where that took place. And while Tracy’s symptoms were fairly mild (low-grade fever, aches and pains) Darrell ended up with an 11-day hospital stay and a fever that topped out at 105.

He has since recovered — a “2 percent improvement every day,” he said — and is slowly working his way back into his normal routine, including teaching tennis at Baylor University, Groesbeck schools and Ridgewood Country Club. He also enjoys catering, especially for his favorite “hippie tree-hugger” nonprofits.

Thompson: I just ate at George’s, and the manager there did a really good thing when I was in the hospital. I was like, ‘Look, can I get food for 25 people [who worked at the hospital]? Chicken fried steak, potatoes, green beans, tea, the whole comfort food thing that George’s does. I’m in a hospital, so I can’t go get it. Can somebody deliver?’ And the guy at George’s ensured that it’ll be fine. And I gave him the credit card number over the phone. And I said, ‘I trust you,’ because I teach his daughter tennis. And so he did. Charged me 75 bucks for 25 people.

WACOAN: That probably didn’t even cover costs.

Thompson: I figured it’d be about 200 bucks, maybe, if I was lucky. And he charged me 75 bucks. He said, ‘No, no. What you’re doing is a great idea. It’s awesome.’ It was my idea, but I did very little. This guy [from George’s] paid for probably three quarters of the bill. And I paid a drop in the hat.

WACOAN: How long have you been in Waco?

Thompson: Since I went to Baylor. I started in ‘79 at Baylor. I’ve been here forever and got a job at Ridgewood [Country Club] working a summer camp in ’82, and I’ve been there ever since.

WACOAN: Where did you grow up?

Thompson: I went to junior high and high school in Groesbeck. My dad was in the Air Force, so you name a country in Southeast Asia, and we’ve been there.

WACOAN: How did you end up in Groesbeck from Southeast Asia?

Thompson: My dad was a fireman. Groesbeck had a volunteer fire department. But if you had an actual paid fireman, the insurance rates for all the businesses in town went down. And so basically they’re like, ‘Well, this just make sense.’ All the business owners were happy. And so they hired him.

WACOAN: How long have you and Tracy been married?

Thompson: We got married on January 3, five years ago, down in Fredericksburg. We’ve been together for seven years but got married five years ago.

WACOAN: What all do you teach at Baylor?

Thompson: I’ve done stuff at Baylor since 1994. I have a running class, sometimes racquetball, but mostly it’s tennis. I think this spring it’s all going to be tennis. I just fill in wherever they need because I used to run ridiculous amounts of distance, and so I know a decent amount about running. And they trust me to not get the kids overworked or anything like that. Racquetball is so much easier than tennis. I’m not gonna say racquetball is easy because racquetball is not easy. It’s just simple. It just makes sense. If you’ve been on a tennis court long enough, it makes sense.

I go to Groesbeck on Mondays. I go there and teach after-school tennis clinics to elementary and middle school students.

I do a lot of fundraising stuff for Fuzzy Friends and not-for-profits.

I do some cooking stuff here and there, Round House Bakery and Catering. We did a wedding last weekend. That was a lot of fun. That’s really the reason I went to culinary school in the first place, was to help not-for-profits. My hippie tree-hugger every now and then comes out.

My food thing almost was accidental because I was a wine guy. I went to Napa a lot, in California, and wanted to be a sommelier. But at the time there was absolutely no call for a wine person in any place in Waco whatsoever. Now people respect wine, and they are interested. So I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll go to culinary school because I do like food.’ And you go to New Orleans, and you go out to California and Napa, and they’ve got all the fancy chefs and all the Michelin star restaurants. And so you get all this good food, you’re like, ‘This is a George’s chicken fried steak,’ which, by the way is awesome, but it’s just kind of like, ‘OK, let’s kind of get both ends of the spectrum.’ You can do down-home cooking pretty much anywhere, but for some of the nicer food, you’re gonna have to learn how to do it. And so yeah, culinary school was just kind of a happy accident, which ends up being probably one of my favorite things to do now.

WACOAN: How does Tracy spend her time?

Thompson: Tracy was, until about a month ago, director of nursing at Regent Care Center. And she really has had a — I wouldn’t say it’s been a bad year, but a very difficult year because they’ve locked down the nursing homes. The residents there can’t visit anybody. So if you don’t have FaceTime or something on your phone, you don’t really get to see your family. You’ll talk to them on the phone. But it’s not the same. It’s just not the same.

So a lot of residents in assisted living centers, nursing homes, they’re fairly depressed because they’re keeping them in the room, and they can’t congregate. Usually they play Bingo in big rooms. And you just can’t do that anymore. So yeah, it’s rough. Most people just kind of think, ‘Well, yeah, but they can take it.’ It’s like, no, they can’t really take it as well as we do.

Now Tracy works as a weekend nurse. She works on Saturday and Sunday, two 16-hour shifts. She’s free on the weekdays, a lot less stress, and she is way happier. She gets paid for 40 [hours] even though she works 32. Because you can’t really find many people that want to work on the weekend if they want to go places and do stuff. So she and I now go places and do stuff during the week, when nobody’s around, right? We like it better.

WACOAN: So did Tracy pick up COVID at work?

Thompson: Definitely. The first case they had was one of the therapists there got it. And that was their first positive test there.

WACOAN: When was this?

Thompson: This was very early in September. And so, oddly enough, she had to stay home for two weeks. We were in the same room all the time.

So my goal at that point was to try to get it, like, ‘She has it; I want to get it. We get it cleared out of the house in a couple of weeks. Everybody’s happy.’ Well, that didn’t happen. She got it. I could not get it to save my life. It was probably five or six weeks later when I got it.

WACOAN: When she was at home for those two weeks, what were her symptoms?

Thompson: It was like a pretty good flu — a low-grade fever, nothing substantial or anything like that, but [temperature] around 100, somewhere in that neighborhood. Aches and pains like she said she’s never felt before. It really was like a flu. Nothing substantial that you go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened.’ But she just felt horrible for a week. The muscle aches, the tiredness, all that stuff. She’d do things for a few minutes, and she’d have to sit down.

One of her big deals was breathing. She’d get up out of bed, and [her heart rate] would be 75 or whatever, and it would be 140 when she got to the kitchen. Her heart rate would go bonkers really fast because she just wasn’t breathing that well. That was a symptom for her for a week and a half. And then it slowly got better.

But the lingering effects of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so tired.’ You hear a lot of people have had that with COVID, a lingering, tired, lethargic kind of feeling. She had that like crazy. That lasted probably a week to 10 days, something like that. After two weeks she was fine. Not anything going on.

WACOAN: When you finally caught it, did you get it from her?

Thompson: I got it somewhere else. And for certain I couldn’t tell you where I got it.

Tracy lost her sense of taste and smell, and that was my very first symptom. It was a Friday night around midnight. I had played tennis that day and just felt kind of tired. I was like, ‘I wonder if this is going to be it?’ And then I was drinking fruit punch Gatorade that I’d [opened] at 10:30 at night. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, good.’ And then I woke up at midnight, like, ‘Man, I’m thirsty.’ And at midnight I couldn’t taste it. And I tried to smell it. Couldn’t smell it. And then I knew before any testing because that’s pretty much what everybody says, that you lose your sense of taste and smell. And that was my very first symptom.

WACOAN: And when was that?

Thompson: It was midnight between October 9 and October 10. And then Saturday the 10th I went to an express ER place, and I got tested. I walked in and said, ‘I know I have it. I can’t taste. I can’t smell. I’m feeling a little iffy this morning. So I know I have COVID, but I want to make certain.’ So I warned everybody when I went in. And then [the test] came back two or three days later that, ‘Oh, yeah. You got it.’

WACOAN: And you had been tested a lot when Tracy was sick at home, right?

Thompson: I took one when she had been sick for a couple of days, and no sign of it. My first four COVID tests were all negative. And my positive test came back positive on the 12th or 13th [of October]. And so it’s like, ‘OK, well, I’ve got COVID,’ but I knew that already.

WACOAN: And you were teaching then, during the fall semester?

Thompson: I was doing classes. But I didn’t go to class on Monday and Tuesday because I was feeling really bad. I knew I had it. So I called my boss said, ‘Hey, I’ve got COVID, no question about it. The test hasn’t come back. But I assure you, I’ve got it.’

I didn’t go to Baylor that [previous] Friday, either, because I was feeling a little iffy. I was like, ‘It’s a Friday. I’ll just give [my students] a test.’ Or I think I made all my students write some paper about some tennis player because like, ‘OK, let’s just not take this chance.’

And so I didn’t go Friday or that Monday and Tuesday. And then Wednesday is when I finally went to the hospital because things had just gotten way out of hand on Wednesday morning.

WACOAN: When did it start getting bad?

Thompson: It really started getting bad on Sunday night. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t feel good at all.’ It just got progressively worse. Sunday night, Monday morning, my temperature, the highest it ever got was 105. And so we’re like, ‘Holy cow. This is crazy.’ So we called a friend of ours who is a doctor, and he told me [what over-the-counter pain medicine] to take, and it got the temperature down where it was manageable.

I was in bed Sunday night and then all day Monday, all day Tuesday, and I was trying to move around, and it just wasn’t working at all. And on Monday I started throwing up like crazy. And before that I had a little bit of bowel issues, but since Sunday I more or less stopped eating because I couldn’t taste anything. Everything felt funky because I couldn’t taste it. If you can’t taste it, then all of a sudden your body goes into texture mode. And the texture of everything was just weird. And so I just was drinking Gatorade. Water felt weird. The only thing that kind of felt good was Gatorade. If it was the thickness or the viscosity or whatever it was, but Gatorade was fine. And then I started throwing up the Gatorade. Anything I drank, I just started throwing up.

So I was like, ‘OK, this is terrible, but I’ll be better tomorrow.’ And my temperature was a nice, steady 100 to 103. And I was like, ‘OK, any day now it’s going to get better,’ knowing [how it went when] Tracy was sick.

At that point I’d known probably about 30 people that had had COVID. And they’re all like, ‘Oh yeah, it lasted about a week. I had a fever, and I just felt achy and terrible.’ And so I thought, ‘OK, my case is a little worse.’ But I don’t want to be the wimp that goes, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ And so yeah, the guy mode kicked in. I’m not gonna be the wimp that goes, ‘Oh, I got to go to the hospital.’

On Monday when I started throwing up, I still had some food in me. Tuesday the dry heaves started. So my body was trying to get rid of something. And there was nothing, not even bile. I mean there was nothing left. And so on Wednesday, around noon, I started throwing up the Gatorade. And I told Tracy, ‘This isn’t what you had. This is definitely different. Do you mind taking me to the hospital? Because I have a fairly good pain threshold.’

WACOAN: Because you’re a long-distance runner.

Thompson: Running 50- or 100-mile runs, you get used to being in a crappy position. Your feet are wet, you’re freezing, and you just keep going. Or maybe you do get sick, and you throw up, and you just keep running because you’re out in the middle of nowhere at mile 44, and you’ve got six miles to go You can’t quit. You’re six miles from hell, so you run the six miles, or you walk, but you do the last six miles to finish a 50-mile run. So that’s where the guy thing kicked in. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ And then on Wednesday, finally, I’d had it. And so I went to Providence, to the emergency room.

WACOAN: What did they tell you?

Thompson: ‘Turns out, you got COVID. You got pneumonia. You have a viral infection, and you have a bacterial [infection].’ Anything that possibly could have gone wrong was going wrong. And turns out I wasn’t a wimp, after all. I was about to die.

I had no idea. And they took X-rays of my chest, and it’s really cool. It was a portable X-ray machine. They come to you with this big, huge, greatest-looking television screen of all time. And they said my lungs just look like glass that had shattered, just like broken little pieces. [They said,] ‘Oh, yeah, you got pneumonia really bad. And you have all this other stuff.’

The problem was that they couldn’t get Remdesivir, the stuff they gave President Trump, fairly quickly. I had to qualify for that. They didn’t have that much in the hospital.

Since I had dehydration, the whole bit, they started IVs immediately. And so luckily I stopped all the throwing up. I threw up the first day in the hospital, then after that I was fine. Everything was a liquid diet, and it wasn’t really good liquid. It was very watery and kind of nasty. But at the same time, they’re just like, ‘We’ve got to get you hydrated again because you’re way dehydrated.’

WACOAN: What came next?

Thompson: They started this five-day program. And after day two I felt so much better. And then by day five I wasn’t turning cartwheels or anything like that, but I felt a lot better.

I got a steroid every morning, in the middle of the afternoon and every night at midnight. And so my face was about the size of my ass. I looked like a chipmunk. It was huge. After I got out for the next few weeks, I was losing hair. Every time I would take a shower and I’d wash my hair, I looked down, and I was like, ‘Oh crap. I’m losing hair like crazy.’ It’s really settled down now, but I still have little spots here and there. I’m still kind of losing hair. And supposedly they would say that’s one of the symptoms of either COVID or high fever is that you lose hair. I had no idea.

Every morning around 6:30 or 7, Dr. [James] Goodsett would come in. Nicest guy ever. Really smart, great guy, and very personable. He would talk to me and explain what was going on. But he didn’t explain everything that was going on; he talked to Tracy.

The first day I said, ‘Hey, my wife’s an RN. While you’re in the room, could you talk to her and tell her what’s going on because I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So he started calling Tracy every morning before he came in to talk to me. He told her the real truth, and then he told me the fluffy truth because he said if I actually knew what was going on, I would probably get very depressed and might actually kind of give up.

WACOAN: So what was he telling you?

Thompson: He was telling me, ‘Well, you got this and that, but it’s looking better than it did yesterday. And I think we’re on the road to recovery,’ that kind of thing. He was telling Tracy, ‘He’s taking more oxygen. He’s actually doing worse right now than he was when he was when he came in. We’re hoping this works.’ Remember, I said earlier, I had to qualify to get [Remdesivir] because they had such a limited supply. And it was still experimental at that time.

And so I really still can’t tell you exactly what he told her. But his big deal was, ‘I’m going to tell Darrell kind of a fluffy truth. There’s going to be a good element of truth to it, but I’m not going to tell him how bad it actually is.’ But he was telling her the truth. He said, ‘I don’t want him getting depressed and giving up because if he actually knew what was going on, then he probably would.’

So that’s kind of a sad thing. And speaking of depression, just the fact that I was in the hospital for 11 days, and I couldn’t see a single [visitor].

WACOAN: Even though Tracy had had COVID and recovered, she couldn’t come in.

Thompson: She couldn’t come in. I was like, ‘She’s an RN. She knows what she’s up against. She just had it. Can you let her in?’

That probably ended up being the worst part, not being able to see anybody. Nobody could come in to visit. If you’re going downhill, and I actually did think about this several times, I’d think, ‘I’m not gonna think I’m gonna die, but if I died, no one would ever see me again.’

WACOAN: With the doctor telling you what he was telling you, what brought the thought to mind that you might die?

Thompson: They kept adding oxygen. I started off with the little tube. Got to the big mask. So finally I’m at 6 liters. And I’m not sure, but I think they go to 7 liters, and after that you go to ICU and you’re on the respirator. So I was one step away from being in the ICU.

It’s like when you’re in a building where when you open the door and the wind just kind of hits you like a north wind. It felt like that in my face. Six liters is a lot of air blowing in your face. And yet every day they upped it a little bit more, upped it a little bit more, upped it a bit a little bit more. And I’m like, ‘You know, wait a minute. This is getting worse.’ So I just had that feeling that something’s wrong.

Tracy would explain to me on the phone what’s going on. But I think, once again, she held stuff back too. She said, ‘If you actually knew what was going on, you would have panicked or freaked out or been much more depressed than you were.’

WACOAN: Didn’t it get to the point where you were planning your funeral?

Thompson: I really had. I was like, ‘I feel worse. They’re doing more [intervention] now than they used to.’

It was about a day-and-a-half where I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to happen if I die. There’s this place over the Pacific Ocean where I really want my ashes scattered.’ But the problem is the ocean is facing into the wind, and if you try to do the ashes, they’re going to blow right back on you. So I said, ‘Get me cremated and put me in an urn. Add some olive oil to the ashes and then throw it over.’

And then there’s Estes Park, [Colorado]. I said, ‘Go to Estes Park around 10 o’clock at night. All the stars are out. And there’s a couple of songs that I want to be played while my ashes are being dumped.’

Simply Red redid a song called ‘A Song for You,’ and a ton of people have redone it now, so I’ve actually heard the song a lot. It was written by Leon Russell in the early ‘70s. It’s a terrific song. And Leon Russell had one of those voices. It wasn’t like Bob Dylan or John Waite, but it was one of those where the voice is horrible, but the content is good, so you listen to this guy singing anyway.

WACOAN: So not a great singer, but a great songwriter.

Thompson: Great songwriter. If you listen to him singing, it’s like, ‘I like this song. I wish so and so would sing it.’ And so Simply Red redid it. And I like their version.

And there’s a song that they did for George Harrison. It wasn’t his funeral, but a remembrance [performance]. And it was the very last song. It started off with a little ukulele. It’s called ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams,’ by Joe Brown. Joe Brown didn’t write it. It was written in the 1920s. It’s one of those songs that Bing Crosby and all those guys they sang over the years, and it kind of disappeared, and every now and then I’ll spot it on a television commercial or something like that.

George Harrison was by far my favorite Beatle. Not even close. And the concert for George, I heard it on a flight going out to Napa and said, ‘Wow, I have got to get this album.’ And then I heard the very last song and said, ‘They’ve got to play this at my funeral. There’s no question.’ That was the first song I decided on.

WACOAN: When did you finally realize you were getting better and weren’t going to die?

Thompson: Late in the second day of taking Remdesivir I started feeling a lot better. I was like, ‘Hey, this isn’t bad at all. Or maybe it is bad, but I feel a ton better.’

And then I’m sneaking the oxygen mask off. For a while my blood oxygen level — that’s kind of how they decide how bad you are — was in the mid-80s, which is crazy not good. Right now as we’re sitting here, I’m talking really fast. Mine’s probably about 98 because I’m talking so fast. If you’re not at 99 or 100, I’d be stunned. And at the assisted living center where Tracy works, they get worried when people get around 95 or 96. They get very concerned with the elderly people. And when you get around 90, 91 or 92, those are the guys that smoke a lot. So here I was in the mid-80s. They said my lungs just weren’t working, that they looked terrible. They kept upping the oxygen, so I could breathe. And so I would sneak it off and look over, usually in the middle of the night when nobody’s around, and when it got down to 90, it would beep beep beep beep beep beep, so I’d put the mask back on. I didn’t want anybody showing up to find out what I’m doing. That’s how I was judging how well I was doing. And after the third day it would get to 90 really quickly. But it would hardly ever get below 88. And at 90, you’d really feel you feel it, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to get back on the oxygen,’ which is really kind of a funky sensation.

WACOAN: What did it feel like?

Thompson: It felt like an elephant sitting on me, that kind of feeling. If you’ve ever had somebody accidentally sit on you, like you can’t get a good deep breath. But it’s not the weight of the person. It’s the fact that your lungs can’t do their job. That’s what it felt like. I don’t know how else to describe it. It wasn’t like I felt the pressure of someone or something on me, but I felt the results of that pressure on my lungs. I just could not get a deep breath at all whatsoever. And if I tried, I would just start coughing like I’d been smoking cigarettes for 60 years, 12 packs a day or something crazy. I’d have to take shallow breaths.

WACOAN: How long did that go on?

Thompson: That ended up being what kept me in the hospital the longest, was my lungs. The fever the last couple of days was in the 99 to 97 [range]. My temperature tends to be between 97 and 98 on a normal day. Right now it’s probably 97.3. So when it got to where it was consistently around 99 and 98, it actually felt good. I had a bunch of fever spikes when I was there.

WACOAN: So when you weren’t texting your buddies, how did you spend your time?

Thompson: The problem with COVID and the lung problems is that if you are on your back, that puts pressure on your lungs, so you can’t breathe at all. So at worst, they want you on your side, so at least then you kind of get a little more lung activity, but they really want you on your stomach. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to sleep or lie down on your stomach. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. It took me about a day-and-a-half to figure out how to lay on my stomach comfortably. It also just was boring. It felt weird. So most of the time I was on my side. I couldn’t watch television because you’re looking back at the TV, so no television at all for 11 days, which I’m fine with.

I started making playlists to play when I died. I know it sounds crazy and morbid and all. I don’t want to call it a death playlist, but I made a playlist of songs I wanted to be played at my funeral. I had about five songs. I had the two big ones.

WACOAN: Do you still have the playlist?

Thompson: I don’t have the playlist. I had to get rid of the playlist. That was not an option. [Tracy said], ‘This playlist is going off your phone.’ There were a couple of happy ones: ‘Not Dark Yet’ by Bob Dylan was one of them. Most were kind of sad, but there were some happy ones in the middle of all the ‘Man, I’m depressed’ kinds of songs.

But I did a lot of making new playlists on my phone, non-death playlists. I love Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack kind of guys, so I had Michael Bublé, John Mayer, stuff that Tracy and I listen to quite a bit. I just had hours of nothing to do. Luckily in my bag I had brought a speaker with me that I would charge up every day. That’s actually how I would fall asleep at night when I had that steroid at midnight and could not go to sleep. I would put on Dean Martin or something and eventually I tried to doze off by 3:30 or 4 [a.m.], and I’d get some sleep.

Oh, and you just can’t sleep. It’s horrible. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s the breathing or the mask would move a little bit, but the sleep was just horrendous. You’d think that if you’re feeling terrible, you’d be able to sleep. I couldn’t sleep at all.

[Editor’s note: Other songs Thompson remembers that were on his “Darrell’s Death Playlist 2020” included “Dark Purple Blues,” by Black Oak Arkansas; “Say,” by John Mayer; “California Dreamin’,” by The Mamas & the Papas; “Boogie Chillun,” by John Lee Hooker; and three from “Concert for George,” a 2003 memorial concert and video for George Harrison, held in Royal Albert Hall in London: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”]

We had a lot of Facebook stuff and Sudoku. I’m now a Sudoku king. I have probably 8,000 hours of Sudoku under my belt now because that was the only game I had on my phone at the time. Tracy would post stuff every now and then [on Facebook] and people would comment, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re praying.’

And that’s another weird thing. Whether or not you believe in God or Jesus or whatever deity you’re going with, I did find that knowing that all these people — I’m actually getting emotional about it right now — that all these people are praying for you makes you feel better. So even if it’s just prayers in your head to make you feel better, it worked. It still works. It’s like, ‘OK, I can’t give up and disappoint all these people that are telling me, “You’re gonna make it. You’re gonna pull through.”’ And I’m over here going, ‘I’m so depressed. I can’t see my wife. I can’t see anybody.’ But then it was kind of like, ‘I can’t let these people down.’

I’m a big fan of guilt. Guilt goes a long way in my life. If you make me feel guilty, I will hurt myself trying to help you in whatever is going wrong. And I think that’s one of the problems with everybody now. Nobody feels guilty. They feel like, ‘Oh, I deserve to feel this.’ Everybody’s entitled. You don’t deserve to feel this way. You deserve to get up and do something.

And so with me not being able to tell these people what was going on, Tracy was doing it through Facebook. And knowing how many people were back there, supporting me like that really made me feel a lot better. And that’s why I said you don’t have to believe in Jesus or God or any of that kind of stuff, but prayer is, if you take it the way I was taking it, just the mental aspect of it, knowing that these people are supporting you, that goes a long way when you’re that sick.

WACOAN: And your friend Robert Johnson set up this GoFundMe account.

Thompson: OK, that was crazy. We were using Tracy’s insurance, so it’s a $5,000 deductible. And then there’s some little bills that have come in that we paid that weren’t technically part of the hospital thing, so the insurance didn’t cover it. And we’re sort of like, ‘OK, we’re gonna figure out how to do $5,000.’

So once I got out, I couldn’t go back to work at all. I got out and had the oxygen tank like you see the people dragging around as they’re smoking the cigarette in the casino with the thing in their nose. I got one of those. I got a little backpack that had oxygen in it. And I had a big, huge machine that looked like a giant speaker that I put on at night. When I left the hospital, I had to be on oxygen for a week or two weeks. I was good at walking 10 yards from the bedroom to the kitchen. And I couldn’t go there without my oxygen going down to like 88 or 90, something like that. I had to wear this mask for like a week. And I finally got better and better.

[The doctors said], ‘Oh yeah, you go home, you wear the mask, you try to get out and exercise.’ Well, when I got home the very next day was when this cold front came through. It was 35 degrees and raining for three days. And so I’m sitting in the house for three days, can’t go out, just looking out the window. So I might as well be in the hospital bed because it’s no different. I can’t move. And they said, ‘Oh yeah, you’ll try to move and try to slowly wean off the oxygen.’ Well, I couldn’t move. So the oxygen took a little bit longer than expected. That ended up being one of the big problems, that my lungs just didn’t work right. And so finally, after about the first week, I went off the oxygen and I could breathe. But I couldn’t walk a city block without having to sit down because I couldn’t breathe anymore. It took about a month before I could go back to work.

WACOAN: When did you get out of the hospital?

Thompson: I got out of the hospital on Saturday, October 24. And I went back to work the week before Thanksgiving, at Ridgewood. It was about a week and a half [after my hospital discharge] before I went back to Baylor. I had all my tennis classes. I would say, ‘OK. This is what I want y’all to do today.’ And I would sit in a chair and just watch them because I couldn’t even feed tennis balls. It took about a month before I could actually feed tennis balls. I couldn’t do any activity without just dying within 30 seconds. Finally I could sit down in the chair and set up the ball machine for them to hit. At Ridgewood I can’t do that because I really teach. After about a minute I’d have to sit down. I just couldn’t do anything at all.

And so I lost the two or three days at home and 11 days in hospital and a month after. So that was six weeks I didn’t work. I lost the Ridgewood income because I wasn’t working at all, wasn’t teaching at all. Baylor is a salary thing, and I actually had some really nice people that work with us at [Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation] that covered for me. I did some written assignments and stuff like that initially, but after that I had some really nice people that stepped up and took my classes. I’ve taken classes for people whenever they were out, but it’s only here and there. It’s not three weeks. I was out for three weeks. And three or four people took my classes. I never expected that to happen. That was really nice of them to do that. I was getting [paid at] Baylor, but nowhere else. And so that really sucked.

When I got out, it was like, ‘I’ll do anything. I need to work,’ because I didn’t know Robert did this GoFundMe thing. Julien [Curatella, director of tennis at Ridgewood], was like, ‘No, you don’t have to work. Don’t worry about that. You’ll be fine. We’ll figure out something,’ with me not knowing that the GoFundMe thing was going on. And so I was like, ‘Julien, there’s gonna be a huge hospital bill. I have no idea how much this bill is. I need to work. I need to teach, whatever I can get.’ He’s saying, ‘No, you need to slow down. Gradually work into it.’ It was almost like a fight, with me saying, ‘I need to work more.’ And he says, ‘No, no, no. You need to ease your way into the job. Don’t overdo it because if you overdo it, then you’re done, and you can’t work again. Let’s just go slowly into it.’

Tomorrow will be two weeks since they told me about the GoFundMe thing. I had no idea what was going on. I was trying to scrounge around finding anything to do to work. I’m like, ‘This is not cool. I don’t know why y’all won’t let me do this, but I gotta go back to work. I know it’s a little harder, but I gotta suck it up. I gotta pay this hospital bill.’ And so they gave me a little envelope. And Robert told me, ‘You were sick. A bunch of people, 60-some people, got together, and we did a GoFundMe thing.’ And it was over $14,000. I was like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ Once again, guilt. I’m not worth $14,000. That kind of feeling. But he said, ‘You didn’t work for six weeks. You’ve got to think about that too.’ And so that was ridiculously nice, very unexpected, very not deserving. Once again, guilt.

WACOAN: How have you felt since you’ve gotten out of the hospital.

Thompson: I’ve gotten 2 percent better every day. Normally you’ll have the flu, and you’ll feel bad. The next day you feel a lot better, and within four or five days you’re back to where you were. And it wasn’t like that at all. Every day was about 2 percent [recovery]. Seriously in order to get back to about 100 percent, where I’ve been now for a while, it took about 50 days. Five Zero. Two percent a day, I promise you, was my recovery rate. It was that slow.

My oxygen slowly came back. After a week I could walk around, but I walked around like an 85-year-old man. I was hunched over. I took baby, baby steps. And so every day it just got a little bit better. And I’ve had no lingering effects whatsoever. Tracy, after she got this, was very lethargic for quite a while. But I’ve never felt any lingering effects. My taste and smell came back. I was in the hospital when I could start tasting food again. I found out that my favorite food at that moment was lime and cherry Jell-O because I could taste it. It felt good in my mouth.

I lost about 20 pounds. So it’s a good, quick weight-loss system if you want to do that. In fact when I got out, I couldn’t do my face recognition ID on my phone because it didn’t recognize who I was until I fattened back up again. And no lingering effects, except I spent two weeks in a bed, not doing anything, and my body just atrophied into nothing. And so walking stunk. Running — I still don’t run well at all. I’m not doing really any physical exercise or lifting weights. I’m weak. I really have no strength to speak of. But I haven’t done any exercising, and that’s all on me. And that’s what I do. My whole life is based on the ability to move hit or something, and I couldn’t do any of it.

WACOAN: With what you and Tracy have gone through, what are your thoughts when you go to, say, the grocery store, and see folks without masks?

Thompson: Doesn’t bother me. It worries me like, ‘OK, who is this guy? Is this the kind of guy that’s gonna, when somebody tells him to put on a mask, is going to start throwing punches?’ One of those, ‘I’ll put on a mask when I’m damn good and ready, and you can’t do this to me, blah, blah, blah’ guys?

What bothers me is the attitude of the person, potentially. I am not going to tell you to put on a mask. That is up to you.

My COVID experience was the worst experience of anybody I know. Hands down, not even close. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to tell you how to live your life. And everybody else, they feel bad for a week or whatever, and then they’re fine. I’m the only one I know that went to the hospital for an extended period of time. I know a couple of people that went for a couple of days, and then they were fine. They just needed some help, and they couldn’t have done it by themselves. But I’m not gonna sit here and tell you how to live your life just because my life sucked.

So I’m not going to push my experience on you. I’m still a big fan of do what you feel comfortable doing. I’m not going to be a mask Nazi.

But at the same time if I’m going into your store, and you want me to put on a mask, I’m gonna put on a mask. For me, it’s more of a respect thing than anything else. Most of the time I don’t remember my mask at all because I’m usually outside playing tennis. And so I don’t really ever wear a mask that much. But when you’re in somebody’s [place of] business, it’s their control. It’s not your control. If you don’t like them making you wear masks, go somewhere else.

WACOAN: Have you started hitting tennis balls yet?
Thompson: Yeah, I’ve been hitting tennis balls a lot. But if you make me go 10 or 15 feet, it’s going to take me about a month-and-a-half and an Uber to get back. I can’t recover quickly at all.

So I’ve been feeding balls now for quite a while for a month-and-a-half, maybe two months. There’s no way I can actually play tennis. I can hit tennis balls. If you hit them to me, then I’m fine. But not if you’re making me actually play, running from side to side.

And no running yet. Once again, that’s my fault. I should have started running. Thanksgiving would have been a good time to do it. But here it is six weeks later, and I still haven’t run. And in those six weeks of not doing anything, the yard goes nuts. Everything’s just piled up. Tracy’s working like crazy. And she’s trying to take care of me and all, so everything kind of went crazy. Then you have Christmas, and you have to do all the decorating, then you take it all down, so I haven’t had any time really to exercise. I think walking is going to be my start back.

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