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.”
The picture of health, 50-year-old Mark is the last person you would expect to be hit with the ravaging effects of a disease that continues to puzzle research and medical professionals, but appears to target the elderly and medically vulnerable. 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, high-elevation endurance runner, and has competed in the 24-hour Toughest Mudder. But 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.
“I should have died in that hospital room. I absolutely should have,” Mark said when he and his family sat down for a socially distanced interview with Moonshine Ink in the front yard of their Glenshire home.
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. Written in a childlike hand, he had scrawled the two simple words in a few brief moments of consciousness during his weeks-long stay in the ICU. The photo was shared on local social media pages and illustrated the reality that Truckee/Tahoe was not immune to COVID at its scariest.
But the image didn’t even come close to depicting the pure hell Mark was going through at that moment, that he continues to go through three months after being discharged — a miracle if there ever was one.
The Redpaths, Mark and his wife Holly, are certain that 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. People at the time, she said, were of the mindset, “It’s kind of here. Only older people are getting it. But other kids in our class started getting sick.”
She started to wonder what was really happening, as more and more kids in class were sick and coughing.
“The cough was bad because I couldn’t control myself,” she explained. “I couldn’t hold it in … It was like having a straw and trying to blow water through it.”
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,” he recalled. “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 would lie there and think, I’ve just got to work through this, I’m just sick. I’ve had the flu but 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. Mark had come out of the bedroom that night around 10 p.m., pulled a blanket of Madison’s around his shoulders, and slid his socked feet into flip flops.
“He was shuffling in baby steps and he was panting and he didn’t talk,” Holly said. “He just came out of the room and I looked at him and, yeah, that was it. He already knew that he was going.”
And that’s when things got real.
“I didn’t know what to do,” recalled Madison. “It happened all so fast … We never even thought about the possibility of him going … COVID wasn’t a thing, not really here. The weird thing was we basically just said, ‘Bye, love you.’ It happened in a matter of five minutes.”
Mark’s thoughts on that moment in time are a somber reflection on the possibility that he could have died: “That would’ve been their last memory.”
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.
“You basically slowly drown,” 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.”
The nurses told Mark they were taking him to his room, which turned out to be a direct trip to the intensive care unit. He has no recollection of getting there but recalls being given oxygen — first nasally and then via a non-rebreather mask, which provided more oxygen and support —during the first two days. At that time, he was still able to communicate with his wife and kids using FaceTime. But on day three, the situation had become more dire and only after the fact did Holly find out her husband had been put on a ventilator.
“I think the hardest thing was him going on the vent and not being able to say anything beforehand, for all of us, was really hard,” Holly said. “And then not being able to talk to him for two and a half weeks after that, that was really hard.”
To add insult to injury, or in this case illness, just after Mark was admitted to the hospital, Hunter started with symptoms identical to his father’s but on a less severe scale. So, after an initial two-week quarantine following Mark getting sick, Holly and her kids found themselves on another 14-day lockdown. Their two-bedroom, one-bathroom house was close quarters for quarantine. Holly and Madison cordoned off an area around the couch so Hunter wasn’t confined to his room. As word spread through the Redpaths’ friends and neighborhood, they found themselves on the receiving end of compassion and generosity, with people dropping off food and checking in to see of what they were in need.
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 and the benefits of which are still hotly debated, although recent studies are pointing to it not being effective for COVID-19 patients. 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 was in the hospital because 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. His hallucination continued, causing him to think that 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.
“One thing after another,” Mark said, clearly still troubled by the fact that he really, truly believed the “accident” was why he was in the hospital. “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 had driven 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. He thought he was in a hospital in a remote mountain top in Argentina, even though the staff members’ ID tags clearly said Tahoe Forest Hospital. He even ripped out his feeding tube at one point.
The entire time, the nurses had no idea what he was going through.
After over two weeks on the ventilator, during which time Mark was mostly laying prone on his stomach so gravity could help his lungs, the nurses called to tell Holly that his oxygen levels were going up and that 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.
“They had the entire ER in the room in case, waiting to see what was going to happen,” Mark said, 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.
Holly had been told the ventilator would keep his body from working too hard and thus able to get stronger. Only in the weeks after his discharge did she learn that he was close to death and the ventilator was a necessity.
“Without the vent, there was no way I was going to make it,” Mark said. “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.”
Once he was off the ventilator, Mark was moved out of ICU to the COVID unit, where he remained weak but his mind strong. Still believing his hallucination was real, he knew he had to stay alive to face the parents of the children he thought had been in the accident. So, he started to fight, earning the nickname Lazarus, meaning ‘God has helped,’ 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.
“We went to go have pizza with him,” Holly recalled. “He came out and he’s like, ‘I’m coming home.’ They didn’t tell me!”
Mark, however, has a different version to tell. “So here’s the truth of it,” he said, with Holly cutting in laughing and saying, “He’s a little persuasive in getting out.”
“I was like, I need to get out, and the only way I was going to get out was if I could prove I could walk a certain distance,” Mark said. “I just started trying to walk around in the room but out of range of where the camera could see me in my bed. I would walk around and a couple of times I actually fell onto the bed and I was like, God, if they saw me, I’m not getting out. I’m not getting out.”
He kept trying, holding onto a walker for balance and shuffling but not really walking. He convinced everyone looking after him that he was feeling great. Of course, they also didn’t know he had fallen a few times in the bathroom and struggled to get himself up without calling for help.
“Technically, I cheated my way out of the hospital because they would’ve had me in there another week or two,” he said with a laugh and Holly adding, “I don’t know how he managed to pull that off, but he did!”
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.
“I hope I can get close to back where I was but at this rate it’s not looking like I’m going to,” he said. “I think this is life-changing but I’ve got to give it time, I guess.”
A perfect storm
As if it weren’t enough for Mark to almost have lost his life, his family to have lost their husband and father, the Redpaths are facing the financial aftermath not just of Mark’s hospital stay — which a week after his discharge was said to be in the “hundreds of thousands” but the number could very well keep climbing. The Redpaths are 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.
While Mark knows the doctors would like to run further tests and bloodwork, he can’t afford to let numbers keep climbing. He would like to be able to seek help for his PTSD and therapy for the entire family because the ordeal they’ve been though has been nothing short of harrowing. It’s not financially possible.
On the way home from the hospital, still suffering hallucinations though to a lesser extent, Mark questioned all the rainbows he saw lining the windows of the stores in downtown Truckee. Madison explained that the bright colors had come to symbolize hope, strength, and support for those on the medical frontlines, adding, “Part of it is because of you.”
Before personal athletic coach Mark was hit with COVID, as the novel coronavirus was just starting to creep across the nation, Holly’s home-based business, Sierra Essentials, which features all-natural and eco-friendly personal care products and candles, started to take a hit as nonessential business closures and stay-at-home orders were going into effect. It was supposed to be their “break-out” year, she said. Instead, orders were canceled, retailers and wholesalers closed, and retail shows were postponed indefinitely or canceled altogether. Like many others, 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 — and they are scared.
“There are so many layers of stress, so many layers of events. There are layers of situations of things happening the whole time,” said Holly, taking a deep breath and holding back the tears that kept threatening to flood her eyes as she and Mark recounted their ordeal. “We’re behind. We’re way behind. It’s like a perfect storm for an absolute and utter disaster — like a hurricane. That’s the way it feels to me. It’s like all the ingredients are creating a situation that we have absolutely no control of fixing. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s financial, it’s spiritual. It’s such a weird dichotomy of all the forces that have been at play at this house, at the hospital.”
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.
“To think that everybody helped and then we could be out of the community because the COVID has completely decimated our savings,” said Mark, is difficult to come to terms with. The thought of having to lose the life they’ve worked so hard to build is crushing for the family.
Facing no other alternative, the Redpaths have created a GoFundMe account to help defray medical costs and try to save their life in Truckee. In less than 24 hours, nearly $8,000 had already been donated. The Redpaths also noted that without the hospital, its staff, and the spirit of the community, Mark would not 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.
“There is a space on the other side of the rainbow that is blue sky,” Holly said. “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, he said, going on to explain that you just don’t know what someone is going through. Perhaps the person behind you at Safeway just finished chemotherapy or has a compromised immune system. To Mark, it’s a simple thing that for some can mean life or death because, as Mark stresses in his conversations with the community, with COVID-19, so little is known. 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. They don’t know if Mark can get it a second time and he knows that if he did, he would not survive. Holly equates not wearing a mask to playing roulette: There is no way to know if you’ll be that one person whose life is changed forever.
It wasn’t long after his discharge that Mark was starting to get out and about and one day went to Home Depot, of course wearing a mask, when an employee commented to Mark that he is “a pussy, and that I needed to grow some real some balls, and take off that mask in order to be a real man.” Not wanting conflict, Mark turned and walked away. The employee screamed at something to the effect “another liberal coward hiding behind his skirt.”
Sharing the interaction on Facebook, Mark hopes his message gets shared enough that the Home Depot employee sees it: “You don’t know me at all. What did you think you knew about me? I was wearing a mask! What if I was wearing the mask because I was having chemotherapy and I could not get germs that would hurt my immune system? You just assumed that I was a political rival. Shame on you sir … if only you knew how delicate I was at that point. Instead of insults from you, what I really needed was a big hug.”
The incident, during which the employee lamented that having to wear a mask impedes his free speech, moved Mark to compile for social media his list of the “Top 15 Coolest Infringing-Experiences in the ICU.”
A few of the highlights:
- It’s a really cool feeling to have the metal intubation tube dragged out of your throat. It feels like your spine is getting pulled through your body. For me I thought the nurses and doctors were removing fishing hooks from my throat. Even cooler is when you are given a tube to suck spit from your mouth and you use it as a tool by forcing it down your throat to try and suck out the remaining hooks — all because you are hallucinating that you still have hooks in your body.
- It’s cool to have to defecate in a pull cart and the nurses wipe your butt. It smelled so bad that the nurse would gag; the nurses thought it was cool, too.
- When you are really thirsty, it’s cool not being able to lift a small cup of ice water because you lost 45 pounds of muscle mass and don’t have the strength to give yourself water. It’s amazingly fun and cool to stare at a cup of ice and desperately want to put the ice in your mouth.
“So the next time you think it is not cool to wear a mask and that you want to make a political statement, and you think that a mask is infringing on your liberty and human rights, well, think about your family, the doctors, the nurses, your child that might have to pick you off the toilet and wipe your butt,” Mark advised. “Think about how cool it is having all your humanity, your soul, your heart broken — ripped from you in an ICU room.
“The bottom line is that when you go to the ICU room in a horrible critical state, you don’t ask the nurses and doctors if they are Republican, Democrat, straight, gay, Black, White, or if they wear a mask or not. You ask them to save your life, regardless. So let’s wear a mask for our fellow human beings, and let go of the political and racial hate, if only for a little while. Can we please use a little humanity and kindness with one another?”
Even Madison and Hunter have seen it among their peers. The mindset of, “Oh yeah, it’s happening but the rules don’t apply to me because I’m young or whatever,” said Madison, who sees that it’s even more dangerous for younger people to get it because they may be asymptomatic or have a very mild case but can pass it on to others.
“It’s been hard because I feel like it’s kind of my fault, but it’s not, because I can’t control it,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “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. “She passed it on to me,” Mark said. “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.”