A Boise priest recounts the physical and spiritual battle of a 'touch-and-go' experience with the coronavirus.



A Boise priest recounts the physical and spiritual battle of a 'touch-and-go' experience with the coronavirus.

By Gene Fadness

Father Robert Cook is not a stranger to medical issues and hospital stays. He’s been hospitalized for issues related to his throat and his appendix. He’s even had brain surgery, but even that did not alarm him as much as his recent bout with COVID-19. His March 2015 operation on a brain aneurysm required a two-night stay in the hospital. The battle with COVID resulted in 11 days of hospitalization.  

“I’m surprised that more people haven’t died because of the intensity of it,” he said, just shortly before the United States hit 200,000 deaths. The U.S. has just 4 percent of the world’s population, but about 20 percent – or about 7.5 million – of the cases. “The mystery of the virus is some will have just a mild case, but a smaller number get the more severe cases.”

For Father Cook, pastor at Boise’s Sacred Heart Parish, it was about as severe as it gets. After he was beginning to recover, doctors told him his case was “touch-and-go.” They were not far from a decision to intubate him and put him on a ventilator. “Of course, I didn’t want to go to the ICU and be put on a ventilator, because I knew what that could mean,” Father Cook said. “Thankfully, I didn’t have to.”

Doctors told Father Cook that because he is younger, 49, his body was able to work harder to fight the virus. But, that battle makes the symptoms worse, and it’s a battle that older people many times do not have the strength to survive. “It seemed like every symptom you can get, I got,” he said. “If I were older, I might not have had as many symp-toms, but I might not have lived.”  

Father Cook didn’t get to the point where he thought he would die, but as his case worsened he began to prepare himself spiritually for the distinct possibility that he could die. He wrote down some of his insights from the harrowing and mysterious experience after he got home. “I’m still unpacking it all and probably will for a long time.”

JUST ONE DAY after Father Cook anointed an ill parishioner, he became ill. "I tested positive a day after that, but I already knew I had it because of my symptoms." He immediately began a self-quarantine.

On the first night, he had digestive issues and got a rash on his neck and stomach. Initially, he had hoped it was a food allergy. “But it was strange enough, that I knew it was nothing normal. I had never had symptoms like these before, and I didn’t know what would come next. But I didn’t think it was serious. I thought it was something I would get through.”

But then came chills and sweats, which, for him, were the worst parts of the virus. That was on a Friday night. By the middle of the following week he had lost his sense of smell. “I had taste for a while, but it was distorted.” (Now, more than a month later, he is starting to get back a sense of smell.)

On Wednesday, Sept. 2, he recorded a video for the parish. "At that point, it was not fun, but I thought I would get better in a few days."

But by that night and the following day, his condition “just flipped,” and he was suffering from almost continuous chills, sweats and fever. “I was starting to get exhausted and breathing became more difficult. By Friday afternoon I was exhausted. I had never in my life had chills and sweats like this.” That was interspersed with more stomach issues and chest pain. A friend brought him a pulse oximeter so he could measure his oxygen level and blood pressure. 

Contrary to the view of some, this was no ordinary flu. "I've never felt this bad before, and I was beginning to think I probably need to go to the hospital." 

A friend drove him to St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center on Friday night, Sept. 4. "There was a chair outside where you sit while they evaluate you. Then they take you through a back door that leads right into the COVID area." The only items he brought with him were his phone and charger. 

Admission into the hospital did not immediately mean improved conditions. The chills and sweats continued. “When you have chills like that, you’re not breathing normal.” Doctors immediately started him on the experimental drug Remdivisir.

Father Cook’s caregivers were concerned that his case not become more acute, potentially causing even more damage, including blood clotting. “For people who don’t have severe cases, they start to feel better after 10 to 12 days, but for those who have severe cases, it gets the worst at 10 to 12 days, with new threats like blood clots and liver damage. Your inflammation levels get so high that it throws off lab work so doctors are not sure what’s real and what’s not. In the meantime, his oxygen levels continued to drop to the point where he was on the highest level possible before being placed on a ventilator. “They try to get you to lie on your stomach, which takes pressure off your lungs and chest," he said. He still does that at times when breathing becomes more labored. 

AFTER ABOUT a week in the hospital, his appetite started to return, which increased his strength.

Even during his sickest days, he was able to communicate with his brother and the parish. Father Cook is the youngest of nine children and most of his family, including his mother still live in the area. Though they could not visit him, he was able to text his brother who, recovering from surgery, was living with his mother.

Father Cook had to limit his communication to a couple family members and the parish office. “It was too overwhelming to try and keep up with everyone who wanted to contact me and still be able to focus on what I was supposed to be doing.”  

He was able to pray the Liturgy of the Hours from his phone. "Thankfully, I was able to do it the whole time, even when I was the sickest." 

"I was also one of the rare people who got to see somebody I knew," he said, noting that a Sacred Heart parishioner, Dr. Clara Anil, is a doctor at St. Al's. "She checked in on me frequently and brought me a rosary and a prayer book." 

FATHER COOK'S recovery was not just a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well. 

‘It was eye opening to the whole reality of the place I was in,” he said. “I describe it as like I had a taste of purgatory, being very aware of the reality of suffering and the awareness of God’s presence and the spiritual reality of not being focused on this world but being aware of both the here and the here after. It’s not that I thought I would die but I had to be aware of that possibility.”

He said he related the intense chills and sweats to “a purgatorial experience in the sense that there is nothing you can do about it. You know God’s there, but no matter how much you pray or what you pray you have to go through it,” he said. “Was my suffering for my own soul or for the redemption of others?” he wondered.  

The entire experience “wasn’t entirely bad because of my faith,” he said. “It was difficult, but at the same time you’re asking questions like, ‘Are the angels and saints with me? Is there a crossing-over going on that I am not aware of? Physically I’m in the hospital but spiritually perhaps there is something more going on.” 

If he were to die, Father Cook said he thought about who he would see when he got to heaven and "maybe they are aware of what's going on right now and praying for me and being present in a way that I cannot understand."

 He was also intrigued by the timing of the events related to his release.

Sunday, Sept. 13, was the first day he was able to get by with a very low level of oxygen. The following day Sept. 14, was the first day he did not require supplemental oxygen. That day, he noted, is the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, a day that celebrates Jesus’ eventual triumph over suffering.

Father Cook describes the entire experience as a "very real physical and spiritual reality, yet mysterious at the same time, much of what our journey through life is like."

In fact, there are some aspects of his experience – especially his focus on the afterlife – that he hopes he can now carry with him. “It’s a different place to be, where your focus is not on this world. The challenge for me now is how will I not be of this world and go back to the same way of living, the same distractions and sins. How do I transform to the level that I would like to?”

EVEN AFTER HIS release, Father Cook was told he was still “high risk” for 10 days to two weeks for blood clots and heart issues. Chest x-rays and breathing tests are in his future. And always in the back of his mind will be the possible long-term damage that the virus is said to cause in some people. However, the doctors “are surprised with how well I’m doing,” he said. 

He was instructed to ease back into his work, no easy task for the hard-working priest. “I’m not a good patient, nor am I very patient.” 

He had to self-quarantine for several days and not return to Mass for about 10 days. “I really wanted to see my parishioners. I wanted them to see that I was recovering and doing quite well, probably better than expected,” he said. However, the time away was important, he said, “because it helped me to surrender and allow others to take care of the parish.”

Father Cook is extremely grateful for his caregivers. “I have a much greater appreciation for doctors and nurses, especially during these times when they are putting themselves at risk every time they come into your room. I have a renewed prayer for them.”

While he’s always been careful about wearing a mask and social distancing, his ordeal has given him a greater understanding of the need for those precautions. “Once you experience this virus at this level you get a renewed sense of all those prevention measures.” 

Another critical prevention measure he cites is prayer. “To know how many people were praying for me was comforting. Even though I’m an introvert and don’t necessarily want a lot of attention, I knew the position I was in and needed those prayers.” 

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