MISSION, Texas (KVEO) — It has been over a year since the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the United States, and with it taking the life of thousand across the country. Individuals who survived COVID-19, are now dealing with the lingering effects which are not just physical but also mental.
“I can pretty much tell you I am a different person,” said Mission resident Robert Flores, a COVID-19 survivor.
Flores contracted the virus last July.
“The way you look at life before and the way you look at life after, once you’ve gone through that, it’s an eye-opener,” he said.
It started as a fever, then, within a week, he was taken into the emergency room. Flores ended up in the hospital during one of a peak in cases, so he was kept in the hallway.
“At that time, they wouldn’t allow anybody to go in, so you just had to be there by yourself,” he said. “There were some [instances] where they just ran out of oxygen, and those were pretty scary.”
Flores almost lost hope but regained the will to fight and declined intubation.
“I remember I just said, ‘okay this is as far as I go.’” he said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had already made my peace. I couldn’t take it anymore. But something miraculous happened and now here I am.
“I forced myself to eat. The more I ate, the better I felt. Then they took me down back to the little oxygen deal and I started feeling better and was able to move around and all that by myself instead of on the wheelchair all the time.”
His efforts paid off, and he was discharged. Flores took the battle as a sign it was time to retire and focus on rebuilding his strength.
“Once I started feeling better and was able to get up out and about I would walk from the front door to the mailbox and back,” Flores said. “That was as much as I could do.”
He kept at it and has since physically recovered, but the trauma of his near-death experience stayed with him.
“When I was there, I didn’t want to get emotional because I was afraid it wouldn’t help me to recover, so I tried to stay positive,” he said. “I kind of held everything in when I was there. I saw a lot of people that didn’t make it.”
Psychotherapist Dr. Lisa Cortez says even people who haven’t been infected have been suffering from their mental health due to COVID-19.
“We’ve never been through a pandemic, but actually having COVID and having it severe like that, I think, with any illness, it causes a lot of other symptoms we don’t really hear about,” she said.
Dr. Cortez said her clients who share a similar experience hold feelings of anxiety, depression and even guilt. The first step to getting through it is to talk about it.
“We usually start thinking irrational thoughts — ‘I should’ve been dead,’” she said. “Once I talk to them I say, ‘why do you think you don’t deserve to be alive?’ just kind of switching the way they think about surviving — instead of feeling that guilt, feeling that blessing of, ‘you know what? I’m here. What can I do?’”
If not addressed, Dr. Cortez said those emotions could lead to PTSD. To prevent this, she recommends exposure therapy, which involves taking small steps toward doing something that scares you.
“Whatever it is they’re eliminating from their life if they feel ‘if I go outside or leave my house, I’m afraid,’ that’s what we eventually do — exposure with doing things they want to do again,” she said.
Flores said this was his case for a while. However, by increasing the distance of his walks, he has grown more comfortable outside the house and has resumed activities like grocery shopping and even golfing.
“That was the safest place I felt, wide open all that [golf course],” Flores said. “Even then, I wore my mask because I was out there by myself. Later I started feeling better and better and me and my friends that had retired, all of us that are retired, started to get together.”
Though he says the experience made him a more considerate and “better” person, it is not something he’d wish for anyone else to go through.
“You try to tell people, ‘don’t be careless,’” he said. “Don’t think it’s a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s very serious and once you’re there fighting for your life. It’ll change you. One way or another, it’s going to change you.”
Now fully vaccinated, he has an additional sense of relief but said he’ll continue being selective of who he is around.
If you are experiencing emotional challenges from COVID-19, there is a 24/7 toll-free hotline in Texas available for mental health support. The number is 833-986-1919.