Anil Gharmalkar’s life will never be the same after contracting Covid-19 in April.
The father of nine lives in a small town in the southeast of Kansas. It’s a part of the country, he admits, where the attitude to the coronavirus pandemic is “cavalier” among many residents.
“Where we live regionally, it’s just starting to flare up,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
But he was one of the unlucky ones as the pandemic permeated the United States at the beginning of the year. Six months on, and multiple trips to the ICU, doctors are still at a loss to explain his life-threatening condition.
Mr Gharmalkar was taken to a local hospital in late April as he struggled to breathe and he was later diagnosed with Covid-19.
The 41-year-old owns a trucking company and routinely travels across several states with trailer-loads of meat destined for supermarkets shelves.
But as he fought for his life, he worried that he was responsible for infecting his wife and kids, possibly endangering their lives too.
“I could not forgive myself if I got you this sick,” he wrote in a text to his wife.
“Please get better, we love you!” came the reply.
He was soon airlifted via helicopter to a hospital in Kansas City to be put on a ventilator on April 26.
“They gave me about an hour’s notice they were going to do that,” he said. “They gave me a chance to call anyone I wanted to.”
‘I thought I was in jail’
He was on the ventilator for about a week but his memories of the time alone in hospital were coloured by drugs which made him “loopy”.
“I had no clue where I was. I remember the glass walls, I remember the different people coming and going.
“For a while I thought I was in jail,” he said. “In my head I thought I’d been in there for a year.”
When he later struggled to walk with a hospital physiotherapist, he realised the severity of his situation.
He was soon released on May 7 but was rushed back to hospital a few weeks later when his throat suddenly closed up in his sleep.
“I couldn’t breathe,” he recalled.
“I spent the next two months and they couldn’t quite figure out what was going on.
“They would give me large amounts of steroids and my airway would open up, and then they would take it away and it would close again.”
Despite a history with diabetes, he was otherwise healthy. But the months following his Covid-19 diagnosis saw him in and out of hospital and the ICU several times, with more procedures on the horizon.
Doctors baffled by virus ordeal
After having an emergency tracheotomy, he was told his vocal cords will likely never heal completely.
The medical staff treating Mr Gharmalkar told him he was the first in the region to have symptoms like his after contracting the virus. In one way or another, his condition stems from the virus attacking his body.
Doctors suspect there may have been some damage to his throat from the ventilator, or his problems could be largely due to post-viral inflammation.
“They really don’t know,” he told Yahoo News Australia. But at this point, he’s getting used to not having answers.
“They would always just kind of shrug their shoulders and say ‘it’s Covid’,” Mr Gharmalkar said of the doctors when he and his wife had questions about his health.
As he faces the possibility of more surgeries – including completely rebuilding his throat – he continues to struggle with low energy and breathing difficulties.
“The goal at this point is to walk up stairs again,” he said.
Virus cases surge in Republican states
In Labette county – where Mr Gharmalkar lives – there has been 291 confirmed coronavirus cases in a population of just over 19,500. Statewide, there has been more than 67,862 confirmed cases of Covid-19.
He admits frustration at “some of the things that have been said” about the pandemic, pointing to anti-mask sentiment and people “denying the truth about the virus”.
In the more metropolitan Kansas City where he was airlifted to hospital, “the attitude is a lot different, things are taken much more seriously,” he said.
Given his immunosuppressed state, his family “have pretty much isolated” themselves. His daughters are doing home schooling while any friends who come over wear a mask.
“Our bubble is pretty closed,” he said. As case numbers tick up in his area, he fears the pandemic will get worse before it gets better.
The heavily Republican state of Kansas is among a concerning trend in the country which is seeing red states (pro-Republican) continue to amass a growing number of cases as the country goes to the polls in just three weeks.
This is astonishing. Almost every state that’s failing is Republican. pic.twitter.com/i8RGdEifsl
— Brianna Wu (@BriannaWu) October 12, 2020
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