By all accounts, Mark Redpath should not be here right now. By all accounts, he should have died. As the one and only Tahoe Forest Hospital patient to have been on a ventilator — fighting for his life under the grip of COVID-19 — he wants you to know this thing is real, the biggest misconception out there being that it’s “just a cold.”
I’m Juliana Demarest, bringing you the latest Moonshine Minutes.
The picture of health, 50-year-old Redpath is the last person you would expect to be hit with the ravaging effects of COVID-19. During his military days, he spent six months at a time deployed in the jungle. Twice he’s biked solo across the country raising money for disabled children. He’s an accomplished triathlete, Ironman, endurance runner, and has competed in the 24-hour Toughest Mudder. Today, he couldn’t run a mile to save his life, the life he surely would have lost in the battle against the coronavirus had he not been an athlete of such a high caliber.
“When he and his family sat down recently for a socially distanced interview with Moonshine Ink in the front yard of their Glenshire home, Mark said, “I should have died in that hospital room. I absolutely should have.”
Mark gained local fame as the anonymous soul confined to a hospital bed in the background of a photo in which an ICU doctor at Tahoe Forest Hospital held up a hand-written sign bearing the message, Truckee Love. The photo was shared on local social media pages and illustrated that Truckee/Tahoe was not immune to COVID at its scariest.
The image didn’t come close to depicting the hell Mark was going through at that moment, that he continues to go through three months after being discharged.
Mark and his wife Holly are certain he got it from the couple’s daughter Madison, who with her twin brother Hunter was a sixth grader at Alder Creek Middle School this past school year. Madison recalled that in the week or so before the district closed schools starting March 16, she and a number of other kids in her class had been experiencing cold-like symptoms, including a dry cough.
“I obviously didn’t think anything of it,” Madison said, noting that in those earlier days when coronavirus was just beginning to spread there was a misconception that it wasn’t yet in the area.
As Madison was on the mend, Mark started to feel weak, lethargic. But unlike his daughter — who never had fever and was feeling and functioning just fine with her seeming “just a cold” — Mark was in worse shape with each passing day.
“That week I started getting progressively worse. I couldn’t sleep very well. I was taking at least four or five hot baths each day, even in the middle of the night … I’ve never had anything crush me like that.”
By the time March 29 rolled around, Holly knew her husband was in bad shape. It was time for him to get to the emergency room.
“He was shuffling in baby steps and he was panting and he didn’t talk. He just came out of the room and I looked at him and, yeah, that was it. He already knew that he was going.”
The first thing the doctors did was get a chest X-ray of his lungs, which had been filling up with fluid to the point that he wasn’t able to expel any of the mucous and he was actually coughing up bubbles. Doctors told him that had he waited another day or two to get to the ER, he likely would have died at home.
Mark said, “The problem with this is it goes from hardly anything to bad and worse, but it goes from worse to deadly in 12 to 24 hours.”
He was admitted to the ICU and given oxygen during the first two days, still able to communicate with his family using FaceTime. Day three, the situation had become more dire and he was put on a ventilator.
Back at home, just after Mark was admitted to the hospital, Hunter started with symptoms identical to his father’s but less severe. So, after an initial two-week quarantine following Mark getting sick, Holly and her kids found themselves on another 14-day lockdown.
The nightmare begins
By the time he was intubated, Mark was already on a number of different drugs including morphine and other pain killers. He also endured four rounds of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-viral drug used to treat malaria. The hydroxychloroquine causes elevated heart rate, so then he needed another drug to bring his rate down, as well as steroids and other drugs which he can’t even recall.
Hydroxychloroquine alone can cause hallucinations, but coupled with morphine and other pain medicines, Mark did not know he was in the hospital for COVID-19. In fact, the reason he thought he was in the hospital was the product of a severe hallucination: Mark believed he had driven his daughter’s volleyball team to a tournament in Santa Cruz and that he had crashed his truck, causing it to roll over and go off a cliff, killing all of the kids inside. He thought Madison had been killed by a great white shark and that her twin brother Hunter had lost part of his leg to the shark and that they were going to take part of his own leg to rebuild his son’s.
The images and emotions were so vivid and real that Mark wasn’t even able to bring himself to look at the nurses caring for him because he felt so ashamed. He thought notes written on the white board that hung across from his bed were really text messages from the parents of the children he had killed.
“I turned them into hate messages. You die, you S.O.B. You deserve to die in that bed after killing my daughter.I thought, I do deserve to die. It’ll never go away, the torment. I couldn’t look at the nurses.”
He thought the nurses were preparing a party for when he died and that the parents were coming to celebrate as his body got ripped apart by the blades of a helicopter. He thought they had put snakes in his room to kill him. When he’d look at the nurses’ masked faces, he was seeing horrifying images of sharks’ teeth in place of the masks.
“I thought the nurses and doctors hated me and wanted me to die like the pig I was. All of [these awful things] and you don’t know you’re in there for COVID.”
Three months later and Mark is still haunted and having nightmares, is likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and although he knows that none of it was real, it was all connected to things that had really happened: Weeks earlier, Mark haddriven Madison and some of her teammates to a tournament in Santa Cruz and they had gone swimming in the ocean. But there was no accident, no shark. The “snake” he saw was the television cord that in his hallucination was slithering. In the heat of one episode, when he was off the ventilator, Mark called a friend at 1 a.m. asking him to call the police because the nurses were trying to kill him.
The entire time, the nurses had no idea what he was going through.
After over two weeks on the ventilator, the nurses called to tell Holly they wanted to take him off the ventilator. They were afraid to do so, however, because his throat and larynx were so inflamed that they were wrapped around the breathing tube. The nurses were scared his airway would be closed off and he wouldn’t be able to breathe. They pumped him with heavy doses of steroids to bring down the swelling and hours later successfully removed the ventilator.
Mark said, “They had the entire ER in the room in case, waiting to see what was going to happen, adding that despite all the pain medicine and being told he wouldn’t remember anything from the ICU, he vividly recalls the removal. The pain manifested in another hallucination, in which the nurses were pulling barbed fish hooks out of his throat.
Mark: “Without the vent, there was no way I was going to make it. Without the doctors and nurses, it wasn’t going to happen. Me being stronger just bought me more time; that’s all it did. But time was running out.”
Mark was moved out of ICU to the COVID unit. Still believing his hallucination was real, he needed to stay alive to face the parents of the children he thought had been in the accident. He started to fight, earning the nickname Lazarus, after the Biblical story in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after four days.
Over four weeks after Mark went to the ER, Holly and the kids went to have a pizza party with Mark at the hospital. Although they would have to remain outside the building and only see him through the window, they were excited. They had no idea of what was to come next.
Holly recalled, “We went to go have pizza with him. He came out and he’s like, ‘I’m coming home.’ They didn’t tell me!”
While Mark is out of the hospital, he’s not even close to being out of the woods. He lost 45 pounds of muscle. He’s got significant scar tissue in his lungs. His body feels sore every day. He’s got pain in his joints, hips, and back, but keeps pushing himself to get out and moving, exercising so he doesn’t further deteriorate. And that doesn’t even address the emotional and psychological effects like continued nightmares and PTSD as he still is processing that the car accident hallucinations were not real.
He said, “I hope I can get close to back where I was but at this rate it’s not looking like I’m going to. I think this is life-changing but I’ve got to give it time, I guess.”
A perfect storm
The Redpaths are facing the financial aftermath of Mark’s hospital stay, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Like so many others in this country who are caught in the middle: They have no health insurance, making too much to qualify for assistance yet not enough to afford a policy.
Before personal athletic coach Mark was hit with COVID, as the virus was just starting to hit, Holly’s home-based business, Sierra Essentials started to take a hit as nonessential business closures and stay-at-home orders were going into effect. The Redpaths were able to defer payments, but now those service providers are looking to start getting paid. They are on the verge of losing their house and their only vehicle — a truck Holly needs to run her business.
Holly told Moonshine: “There are so many layers of stress, so many layers of events. There are layers of situations of things happening the whole time.… It’s like a perfect storm for an absolute and utter disaster — like a hurricane … It’s like all the ingredients are creating a situation that we have absolutely no control of fixing.”
Holly and Mark initially dismissed the idea of a GoFundMe, explaining that their entire life has been spent as hard-working and independent individuals, so it’s not easy to know when to ask for help. With life coming at them from every possible angle, they came to terms with putting aside their pride and accepted that asking for help doesn’t mean looking for a handout.
Facing no other alternative, the Redpaths have created a GoFundMe account to help defray medical costs and try to save their life in Truckee. The Redpaths also noted that without the hospital, its staff, and the spirit of the community, Mark wouldn’t have survived, and they have pledged to donate any funds received in excess of what they need for medical expenses and to get on their feet to Tahoe Forest Hospital.
Holly said: “There is a space on the other side of the rainbow that is blue sky. And we’re not in the blue sky right now but we will be on the other side of the rainbow. Mother nature is in charge and we know that, but this is the ugly side that we can’t see.”
The greater message
If there is one thing Mark has to say it’s this: Wear a mask! You’re not wearing it for yourself, you’re wearing it to protect those around you. Researchers still don’t know why some people are asymptomatic or barely get more than a cold, why some people are laid up for weeks, or some people like Mark end up near death. It isn’t known if Mark can get it again. If he did, he knows wouldn’t not survive.
He advised: “So the next time you think it is not cool to wear a mask … think about your family, the doctors, the nurses, your child that might have to pick you off the toilet and wipe your butt. Think about how cool it is having all your humanity, your soul, your heart broken — ripped from you in an ICU room … Can we please use a little humanity and kindness with one another?”
Madison sees a dangerous mindset among younger people not taking it seriously because they may be asymptomatic or have a very mild case but can pass it on to others.
With tears welling in her eyes, she said: “It’s been hard because I feel like it’s kind of my fault, but it’s not, because I can’t control it.. But I feel like if I didn’t pass it on to him then we wouldn’t be in this situation. So I kind of do blame it on myself, which I know I shouldn’t.”
Her dad pulled her in for a hug. Mark said, “She passed it on to me. She didn’t want me to get it. She didn’t intend for me to get it. That’s why we have to get the message out.”