Chris McCarthy pointed to the walker in the corner of his room at Southeast Rehabilitation Center in Fall River.
“I’m using that to walk down the hallway,” he said. “I’m not better. I survived.”
“I’m 49 years old. I’m going down the hallway like my nana used to go down the hallway in her 80s,” he says, emphasizing what COVID-19 has cost him.
McCarthy, an upbeat conservative talk-radio host on WBSM and forever man-around-town of New Bedford politics, has come face to face with the COVID beast like few who have lived to tell.
Fifty days at St. Luke’s Hospital, twice on a ventilator, subjected to grueling high-flow air treatments, his ribs broken to drain fluid from his chest, beset by high fevers that required him to be wrapped in cold blankets and then finally, as he rounded the corner to wellness, visited by late-night anxiety attacks.
Three months after McCarthy got sick in mid-March, he continues to have some weakness on his left side after suffering three strokes. His voice is like a loud whisper, a result of what his doctors think will be only temporary damage from being intubated for long periods of time. And though McCarthy says his doctors now expect him to make a complete recovery, it’s not guaranteed, and he has a lot of work to get there.
In fact, after suffering the COVID-related strokes, a heart attack and double pneumonia, McCarthy says he does not know for sure whether he literally died; he does know that he was in and out of a grueling death crucible for weeks. Rendered unconscious for some of the most traumatic treatments, he says he believes he was administered drugs that let him forget some of the worst of the ordeal.
“I think I died,” he said. “I remember saying to the doctor, ‘Am I dead? And he said, ‘I don’t see a dead guy. I don’t see a dead guy here. We’re going to keep going.’ ”
How, you might ask, did all this happen to a man who once seemed among the most puckish and energetic souls to ever walk down Union Street? In the prime of his life, McCarthy says he was a man who literally never got sick except for an occasional flu or, he jokes, a hangover.
But right around St. Patrick’s Day, the talk host found himself feeling under the weather.
He did not think it was particularly serious. But he had a cough, so for a few days he did not do his two-hour, on-air show. He talked to his station manager who had experienced COVID-19 and they didn’t think Chris’ symptoms fit the diagnosis. But when a few more days had passed and he was still sick, Chris and his longtime companion Natalie Short both went for tests.
Natalie, knowing that Chris was not a guy who would rush to the doctor, had the results sent to her own phone, and they arrived a few days later. They came back positive for him and negative for her — she had already been vaccinated due to her asthma. Chris, with no known co-morbidities, at 49, had been too young to get vaccinated just before he got sick in March.
But Natalie must have known her partner well because she had the sense to act quickly. She talked to her sister, a nurse, who told her to call the Fairhaven paramedics immediately.
Soon, they were upstairs in Chris and Natalie’s’ home in Fairhaven village. “All of a sudden, what I would describe as the ghostbusters appeared in the doorway,” he said, referring to the EMTs in their COVID-19 hazmat suits.
The paramedics did a blood oxygen test, and McCarthy came back at an alarming 80, when his number should have been in the high 90s. Sensing he was resistant to going to the hospital, one of the paramedics told him, “You’re going in that ambulance. You’re either going now or you’re going to go in a little bit. You gotta go to the hospital!”
“I don’t think (Natalie) knew how sick I was. But just that she knew how stubborn I am,” McCarthy remembered. “I would have waited. And so, God knows what would have happened.”
After they brought him to the ER, that same night Chris came down with sepsis, and his fever raged to the point that a nurse told him he almost died.
“I was so hot it was almost impossible to stay in the room with me,” he remembered. “They put me in what they call the cold blanket to keep my body down, the temperature down as best as possible.
“It wasn’t long after that that they put me on the ventilator,” he continued. “My body wasn’t absorbing oxygen. My lungs were basically useless. And the (nurse) said to me, ‘Yeah, you would have died like this at home.’ ”
Surviving some gruesome treatments
“I was quickly in trouble,” said McCarthy, who talks with candor about his whole ordeal. Doctors started coming in and having him sign waivers for things like a plasma treatment to boost his antibodies. He believes he got remdesivir, the antiviral drug treatment of choice for so many COVID-19 patients.
But while paralyzing agents and morphine made him oblivious to most of the ventilator experience, McCarthy said he has horrible memories of what they call the “high flow” treatment, in which he said warm, dry oxygen was pumped down his airway via a CPAP-type machine in order to dry out his lungs.
“It was torture,” he said.
It’s a very intrusive process, he explained, and for this treatment he was awake for some of it.
“They’re pumping all this into you. You’re breathing it through your nose. You’re thirsty. You’re dying for water,” he said. He was on an IV for fluids but they couldn’t give him water orally because it would go into his lungs, which they were trying to clear of the fluid that was killing him.
McCarthy acknowledged he wasn’t always a good patient for the treatment, sometimes arguing with the doctors and nurses, even begging them to stop what they were doing.
“I can remember at one point saying, ‘Even Jesus got a little vinegar on a sponge on his lips.’ I remember saying that. ‘Please give me a little moisture.’ And they would occasionally. With sponges. Put them in water, put it on your lips.”
McCarthy said that with his oxygen low and all the drugs and procedures, sometimes he couldn’t think straight and realize, or even accept, the treatment that was actually helping him.
“I pulled the tubes out of my body. I would pull the oxygen out. Little do I know, right? It saved me my life. I can remember nurses going, ‘Stop doing that!’ ”
They eventually had his hands restrained in padded mitts so he would not pull out the tubes.
“I’m not realizing I’m doing that, because I want to get the ‘high-flow’ out of my system,” he said. “I’m battling for my survival not realizing what’s really in my best interest.”
“There were times when I gave up,” he said.
He has a theory about that surrender — that the giving up for a while was actually a good thing even though his doctor was telling him he would die if they stopped the machine that was delivering the oxygen.
“I said, ‘Well, I just need a break. I need a break!’ McCarthy said.
And the physicians must have given him some sort of a respite, he said, until he was strong enough to resume the high-flow treatments.
When McCarthy talks about his COVID-19 trial, the story has an epic-like quality to it — some sort of gut-wrenching odyssey that he was forced to go on that involved battling horrible suffering but also allowed him to reflect on his battles. Some of his memories seem surreal or spiritual, but also in some respects a great adventure, albeit a tremendously serious and life-threatening one.
At one point, three doctors came in with another waiver because they wanted to put a tube through his rib cage so they could drain fluid that was crushing his heart and lungs. McCarthy said he was so sick of suffering he told them to just “Go for it!,” and tried to keep from crying so as to impress one of the women doctors, and later had them all laughing when he asked for the videotape of the event, which they had described as a test.
Another time, McCarthy describes a “vision” of Mother Teresa — whom he had met years ago when she visited New Bedford — just as he was going on the ventilator. He described her as being with him in some sort of a cocoon on his bed after his WBSM colleague Phil Paleologos brought him her picture.
And then there was a doctor coming into his room once again, this time asking him who they could call to record a pep-talk so he would not stop fighting. He told him about his psychologist godfather in Florida, so they went and got the godfather, piping in David Prendergast’s voice to Chris’ room with a ‘Go get ‘em, Tiger’ talk.
McCarthy said he realized that when they bring in your loved ones for the big pep talk, that the medicine is over, and it was now going to be about his own determination.
“So, this is it,” he said. “This is my run. There’s no do-over here. If I don’t hang in there, and make it through this thing, I’m gonna be dead and gone. I’m gonna be dead and gone.”
Something bigger than COVID-19
Christopher McCarthy survived.
And as he looks back on it all now, he said he feels lucky and grateful to the “wonderful” St. Luke’s doctors and nurses, but that he also sees something bigger than himself, something bigger than the actual medical experience, that helped him.
“You know, there was something else working there,” he said.
Mother Teresa, his penchant for giving up, the prayers and energy that people were sending him, his own personality. Something. McCarthy does not fully articulate what was going on, but he says he is convinced it was something.
In the end, nothing about COVID, was without cost for him.
He was shocked, he said, when he was finally on the mend to find that he had terrible anxiety and could not sleep at night. He’d always been laid back about life, but now he was worried and was calling friends and family in the middle of the night.
“I would call people at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he said, telling them he had to talk to them. “Because again, I am lying in the same bed I had all those near-death experiences in.”
He later learned about what is called “the sundown effect,” when people who have experienced great trauma are troubled and scared during the night.
He has no shame, he said, acknowledging that he plans to seek out a therapist to talk about some of these things he went through. “Because I don’t want to be in Walmart and wet my pants because they are out of tomato soup,” he jokes. “And suddenly it all comes crashing down on me.”
“It’s a very strange experience, almost dying but living,” he said. He does not think people can realize what being so sick with COVID-19 really entails, unless it happens to them personally.
McCarthy has not been one of those conservatives who downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19. He said that from the beginning he has believed the science about the pandemic. “I was telling people I met, and on the radio, my show, that it was serious. I never thought it was a hoax or any of this stuff,” he said.
He believes in the vaccine, he said, although if someone has a religious or medical reason for not getting it, or just doesn’t really want to get it, he doesn’t think they should be forced.
“I wasn’t able to get the vaccine at that point (in March), or I would have gotten it,” he said. “I was wearing my mask. The only place I was going was to the radio station, except occasionally to the supermarket or things like that.”
Going forward, he believes he will be more watchful about his health, he said.
“I would take going to the doctor more seriously,” he said. “Believe me, if I have a cough, I’ll probably go have it checked out.”
McCarthy said he thinks about all the people who were in the hospital with him who died — among them New Bedford Police Sgt. Mike Cassidy, a 52-year-old competitive bicyclist — who he said was in better shape than he was. He thinks of what family and friends and the doctors and nurses did for him. “I feel very lucky, I feel blessed that I survived it,” he said.
He said he does not plan on making any great changes in his life as the result of his sickness — he was already doing what he loves with his talk radio and political work.
“I’m not going to go out and really change the direction of my life,” he said. “I appreciate it. I know I’m living on borrowed time. I know that because I watched it leave a couple times.”
But he says he’ll still be the same person.
“Look, I always had a pretty good outlook on life. I don’ t know how I wouldn’t have a pretty good outlook now on life, now that it’s been given to me again.”
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