Atlanta man faces long road back from coronavirus infection

At 47, Jeffrey Atkins figured he was relatively young and healthy.

If he caught the coronavirus, he thought, he would be able to shake it off in a few days. 

That’s not what happened.

It's been months, and Atkins is still recovering from a virus he says felt nothing like the flu.

"It felt so bad," Atkins says.  "It was terrible."

Back in April, Atkins wasn't particularly concerned about this new coronavirus or wearing a mask, when he drove to visit his 17-year-old daughter Brooklyn in Moultrie.

"I felt something in my chest," he says.  "It was on a Tuesday. Thursday night, I said, "Man, this ain't right."

After a trip to the local ER, and a COVID-19 test, he drove himself back home to Atlanta.

"It wasn't getting any better," Atkins says.

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By the time Atkins made it to Piedmont Fayette Hospital, a few days later, he had pneumonia, and it was becoming harder for him to catch his breath.

Dr. Rahim Wooley, a Piedmont Fayette pulmonary critical care physician, and his team tried several times to get Atkins' blood oxygen levels back up.

Wooley says Atkins seemed to stabilize, then quickly worsened.

"Despite us giving him 100% oxygen, his oxygen levels in his body were in the 50s," Dr. Wooley says. "He was very, very hypoxic; he required a lot of oxygen."

Atkins was told they were going to need to sedate him and put him on a mechanical ventilator, or a machine to breathe for him.

"I called my wife, and I told her I didn't know if I was going to make it out or not," he says.  "I said, 'Just take care of my daughter.'"

He awoke from a medical coma 11 days later, unable to move his arms and legs, with tubes and machines all around him.

Dr. Wooley says Atkins' 11-day stint on the ventilator is average for COVID-19 patients in his ICU.

"But, as you can imagine, being on the ventilator, fairly immobile, for a number of days, is very taxing to the body," Dr. Wooley says.  "It's a pretty long recovery."

Atkins says he could barely sit up, and it was hard to talk.

"They had to help me move around because I couldn't walk," he says.

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He spent a month in the hospital and lost 33 pounds. 

"I had to do physical therapy in there, too, and that was real, real hard," he remembers.

That was just the beginning. 

Two months after returning home, Atkins is still undergoing physical therapy twice a week, trying to regain his strength, walking with a cane. 

Dr. Wooley says many people may not realize how debilitating this virus can be for some people.

"Especially the younger patients, who didn't believe that they could contract this virus, and then ended up in my hospital, a couple ended up in my ICU, they really come to believe that this is true, this can happen to them,” Wooley says.

Atkins’ says his experience radically changed how he views the virus and the call for people to wear masks in public and practice social distancing.

At the end of his interview, Atkins picks up a surgical mask and holds it up to the camera.

"This right here," he smiles.  "Put that on."