William Vajda, a Marquette native, is chief information officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He previously was chief administrative officer for the City of Marquette.
I am a COVID-19 survivor. My story is a race against time – not unlike the challenges that face leadership at all levels of government across the globe.
At the onset, I was fine one day, and almost completely debilitated the next. The virus attacked with the speed of a light switch while I was teleworking from home. Overnight, I went from feeling normal to developing fevers of 102+ degrees. I lost control of my ability to regulate heat; I endured excruciating headaches – the worst of my life.
My mind slipped into delirium from the pain. When the next set of symptoms set in – full-body agony, particularly strong pain in my abdomen – the feeling like a knife was rubbing across my body for days. It was at this point the full-body convulsions set in, and with each one, I felt a little more of my life force slipping away. I knew that I was dying.
At this point, my wife called the hospital, and an ambulance took me immediately to the ICU. The impact to health care facilities is enormous — lots of ad-hoc adjustments to creating quarantine barriers, full moon suits for staff, field morgues— many new processes under tremendous pressure. I was stabilized, and within a day the test results confirmed that I was COVID-19 positive.
The attending physician was candid: They had done all they could for me, and I wasn’t getting better. To stay at that hospital would be a death sentence, and they needed to transfer me to a larger facility with greater potential for the expertise my care required.
I was transferred to a facility, where teams of health care professionals stabilized me, and bought my body the time it needed to fight the disease. They treated the symptoms, easing the pain and nausea, allowing me to sleep, and eventually enabling me to digest solid food. Because it was a new virus, I was part of a multipronged test using every drug in the arsenal.
It became clear that existing vaccines are only partially effective – and the race to find a cure takes on new urgency every day. While in the hospital, I became disturbingly normalized to hearing “Code Blue” about once every two hours – recognizing that another victim had succumbed to the virus.
Eventually, the medical team bought me enough time to recover. After three weeks, I remember turning the corner, the first day without pain, and finding within me hope for the future again. There were a few early days where I knew my existence was touch and go.
I am grateful to be alive. I am extremely thankful for my wife (also a COVID-19 survivor) and family, who bore a terrible burden during this period, living with the stress of watching my hospitalization from a distance, not knowing if they would ever see me alive again. I am grateful for all my friends who checked in – from all over the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, and the globe – for keeping me in their thoughts and prayers.
As I recover and rehabilitate, I’m reflecting on the experience. Early action requiring quarantine and social distancing bought me time. Early attention to preparing medical facilities and medical staff bought me time. Early attention to preparing my family for life in quarantine bought me time. Every leader at all levels of government who correctly identified the threat early, and took immediate steps to mitigate attendant risks bought me time.
When I was finally diagnosed and treated, the best preparations had been made, and allowed me to cross the finish line before the virus prevailed.
For leaders and decision-makers at all levels of government, the lessons learned are straight-forward: Take the risk seriously. Mitigate the risks as quickly and effectively as possible. Use every tool at your disposal, and use the best judgment possible with the information on hand.
In the United States, a country of 360 million people, we have suffered (at the time of publication) over 755,000 infected, and more than 40,000 deaths – more than the population of my hometown of Marquette.
The coronavirus doesn’t differentiate between urban and rural, and the response shouldn’t either. The lessons learned at all levels of government are the same and scale down to every life lost to the scourge of COVID-19. Early action and sustained vigilance will surely enable all of us to share the light at the end of the tunnel together.
This essay originally appeared on Rural Insights, a research and information source covering Michigan's Upper Peninsula and beyond, and excerpts are reprinted with permission. To see the full article, visit the site.