'I Wasn't Wearing a Mask.' Local Man Shares COVID-19 OrdealCoronavirus (COVID-19)
Stand-Up Comic Has Long Recovery Ahead, Urgently Pushes Safety Message
John Loeber, above with his mask on, is trying to get the word out about mask and social distancing protocols.
You hear the one about the stand-up comic who thought COVID-19 safety precautions were a joke?
He contracted COVID-19 and pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital.
You could call that last line a punchline. But it’s not funny considering that John Loeber thought at one point he was going to die during his stay at Lee Health Gulf Coast Medical Center.
Now the 49-year-old Fort Myers resident is sharing his story to warn others: COVID-19 IS NO JOKE.
“Learn from my mistake,” Loeber says. “Wear a mask, stay at home if you feel even the slightest bit under the weather and social distance. Don’t think that you’re immune to it because it can happen to anyone."
‘I never had a fever, and I never had a cough’
“I thought the quarantine was an overreaction,” Loeber says, describing why he initially didn’t bother with safety precautions against COVID-19. “When the bars and restaurants opened back up, I was there in the crowd. I didn’t wear a mask. I didn’t know one person who (had) tested positive.
When lockdown restrictions eased, Loeber says he began “going out every night” to the bars and restaurants. “I didn’t even have coronavirus on the mind at all. I never had a fever and I never had a cough. Those are normally the two (symptoms) you hear about the most," he says.
After three months of sheltering in place, Loeber was eager to perform again June 18 at a local comedy club. “I was all ready to try out these new jokes about the quarantine and the virus, how much weight I gained during it, how difficult it was to online date,” he told WINK News.
He recalled feeling a little dizzy and sweating some during the day, symptoms he dismissed as an inner ear issue or a passing bout of vertigo. He had to stay focused on his return to the stage. But as the hours passed, he become weaker and dizzier. That evening, Loeber canceled his performance.
‘My Coronavirus story and why I'm an idiot’
Loeber’s condition worsened that Father’s Day weekend. Plagued by extreme aches, nausea, and fatigue, he canceled a get-together with his dad. By Monday, Loeber was occasionally slurring his words and suffering bouts of confusion. He also lost his appetite. His sense of smell was gone, and when he forced himself to eat something, he couldn’t taste his food.
The thought he had COVID-19 ran through his mind. But it was just a thought.
Loeber followed his father’s plea to visit the emergency department at Lee Health Coconut Point. He underwent a battery of tests, including one for COVID-19. When the test results came back, not only did Loeber have coronavirus, but also pneumonia. He was immediately put on oxygen to help regulate his breathing and transported to Gulf Coast Medical Center for hospitalization.
Becoming an advocate
“When I got to the hospital, I was like—I’ve got to let people know,” Loeber says. “I didn't feel like texting people individually, so I sent out a Facebook post to my friends and family titled 'My Coronavirus story and why I'm an idiot.' I was trying to educate other people that might have been around me.”
At first, Loeber posted his story privately. After being told by a friend the story was inspiring and maybe could help others, Loeber made it public – not thinking anything of it – and put his phone down and closed his eyes, exhausted.
Shortly after the dinner hour, Loeber checked his phone and discovered his Facebook post had received more than a thousand views and his account flooded with more than 50 social media messages, including three from local television stations seeking to interview him.
A reflective Loeber says, “Maybe my experience is, for the short term, my purpose. Maybe I’m supposed to share my story so I can change the behavior of other people like me before I got COVID-19.”
If so, he’s done an admirable job of it. Since his discharge from GCMC, more than a 100,000 people—most of them strangers—have read his cautionary tale about COVID-19.
“I've read all the messages, over 1,500 of them. People are saying, hey, you know, thanks for sharing your story. You caused me to think about things differently,” he says.
Loeber could easily boast about his accomplishments, the countless lives he has touched with his modesty and perhaps even saved from COVID-19. But his humility is borne of a time when he thought he might die from coronavirus.
‘I’m not going to wake up’
During his first night hospitalized, Loeber was getting blood work done and a CT scan of his lungs every three hours. His temperature was 104 degrees. He was put on a sedative to make him comfortable and help with sleep.
Eighty percent of people diagnosed with COVID-19 have no symptoms or mild ones that resolve at home. Fifteen percent of people infected with the virus develop severe infections that require hospitalization and oxygen. The remaining 5 percent of people infected with COVID-19 require hospitalization and ventilation.
Loeber was, of course, among that 15 percent of patients who required hospitalization and oxygen. By 9 p.m., his condition had worsened.
“My vitals were going down, my heart was racing, and my blood pressure was through the roof,” Loeber recalls. His doctor appeared bedside to confirm the dire news: his body was fighting for its life against the virus. When told he was a suitable candidate for a safe but unproven treatment that might halt his body’s downward spiral, Loeber agreed.
That experimental treatment, convalescent plasma therapy, involves transfusing the antibody-rich blood serum of recovered COVID-19 patients into people who are severely ill with COVID-19. Researchers believe that the plasma of recovered patients may help patients like Loeber overcome the disease.
But, there’s no guarantee, as Loeber was told. “I knew that, but the way I was feeling, I felt like I had to try something. I wasn’t pressured to do the procedure, but the logic of why it might work sounded good to me.”
Loeber closed his eyes and drifted, drowsy with medication as he waited for his health care team to receive word of a compatible blood match.
At three in the morning his room erupted with activity: A compatible match with his blood type had been found. For the next two hours, under close monitoring from his doctor and medical care team, blood plasma from an anonymous recovered COVID-19 donor dripped from a sterile blood plasma bag into Loeber’s bloodstream via an IV tube.
Loeber’s high hopes for the transfusion crashed after treatment finished. By morning, he felt even sicker than before the procedure.
“I felt like my body was rejecting it,” Loeber says. “My temperature was always 104 degrees. I knew the body starts to shut down at 105 degrees. I began calling a few people, telling them I didn’t know what the outcome would be. I literally thought I was going to die.”
He adds, “I became scared to close my eyes because I was like, if I close my eyes, I'm not going to wake up.”
A long recovery ahead
Late Tuesday night, the complex and mysterious mechanism that is the human body made a turn for the better, in Loeber’s case. He knew so because he asked for ice cream and ginger ale after not having eaten in days.
His condition continued to improve slowly during the next four days. Whether the convalescent plasma therapy helped him recover can only be speculated until researchers review the data of his recovery, along with those of other COVID-19 survivors from the clinical trials.
On June 30, Loeber was discharged, still feeling weak, fatigued, and racked with body aches. He’d recovered his sense of smell, but still couldn’t taste. But he was going home.
Like many patients battered by COVID-19’s more insidious effects, Loeber remains on medical oxygen at home. After getting discharged, his blood oxygen levels were 20 percent lower than normal. A week later, after walking 10 minutes outside his home without the oxygen tank, Loeber posted on Facebook that his lungs felt “like they are on fire.”
He continues to update Facebook followers on his condition. On July 14, Loeber completed a 30-minute walk without the oxygen tank. Despite that milestone, his gradual recovery from COVID-19 remains a challenge. The World Health Organization reports that in severe cases, symptoms can take up to six weeks to resolve.
“I’m still battling body aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath, but overall I’m improving,” Loeber posted July 17. “I still have no sense of taste.”
A new normal? 28 days post-COVID-19
Twenty-eight days since leaving the center, Loeber says his blood oxygen levels have not improved. He’s been instructed to remain on the oxygen tank during waking hours for the next month, at least. He’s on two different inhalers to help him breathe. He’s joined a support group for COVID-19 survivors, and whenever asked to share his story, is only too willing. He occasionally still receives interview requests from local broadcast media and news outlets.
The stand-up comedian, who prefers to sit down (as he wryly notes on his Facebook page), continues to stand tall with his commitment to get the word out about the perils of COVID-19.
“In retrospect, I should not have gone to the crowded bars without wearing a mask in public. If you think that you’re not going to get it, well, I hope you don’t,” Loeber says. “But I also thought I wouldn’t get it.”
Loeber adds, “Statistically speaking, I’ve recovered. I didn’t die. I’ve recovered, but I don’t feel like it.”
He explains more in his latest Facebook update: “I'm concerned about my lungs not improving in the month that I've been out of the hospital. We don’t know if it’s temporary and will eventually improve or if it’s permanent and this is my new norm. The battle continues. Stay safe.”
It’s been said that sharing our story is like telling a joke about ourselves. When we laugh at ourselves, life gets lighter, if only for a moment. Fair wonder that laughter’s considered a therapeutic modality for health and healing.
So maybe it’s no surprise John Loeber’s become a public health advocate. As a comic, he was trying to make us feel better with the laughter of medicine all along.