When COVID-19 cases began popping up across Canada, Saskatoon attorney and athlete David Samuel decided to treat it like the other physical challenges he’d overcome and started training to be in the best shape of his life. 

Now he’s sick.

Samuel has run about 30 marathons and completed between six and eight ironman triathlons (he’s lost count).

In recent weeks, he spent about 14 hours training as if he had a big race around the corner, even though the one he signed up for had been long cancelled. He said he went into “war mode.”

Samuel said he went into ‘war mode’ and prepared for COVID as if it was an upcoming race. He said he wanted to be in the best position to fight the virus if he were to get it. He was training 14 hours a week, sometimes towing his children behind his bike. (Submitted by David Samuel)

He achieved his best running and biking times the same week he was told by public health that someone with the virus had entered his law office. 

Ten days later, he developed a cough and was told to isolate. The next evening, his condition became much worse. 

“I was just kind of just watching TV and I fell asleep and then when I woke up it was like waking up into a nightmare,” said Samuel. “The whole world was different. I had a fever of 40 and everything was shaking and my head was exploding from the inside.”

Samuel said his GPS watch monitors his oxygen level, which has been around 91 or 90 per cent most days, but has dipped as low as 89. Samuel said his doctor told him to call 911 if it stays below 90 at any point. (Submitted by David Samuel)

His oxygen level, which he measures on a GPS watch he uses for running and biking, began dropping at a rate of about one per cent per day. 

“Last night I had what was probably one of the worst moments where I took a breath and it just, there wasn’t enough air, and it just shocks you, like it gives you this panic,” he said Wednesday. “Have you ever been stuck under the water for a second, like in a swimming pool, and there’s panic? You get that but you’re sitting on your couch.

“You just kind of hope that it goes back to normal and that … it doesn’t get worse.”

Samuel was told he tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. He said he’s been taking lots of ibuprofen and has to nap often. Instead of being out biking, he’s watching videos about the science behind the sport. He said that, as an introvert, it’s been OK to be isolated, but acknowledged that mental health has been a struggle. 

He said he felt betrayed by the odds that said he wouldn’t get it and, if he did, it would be mild. Since his case has been more severe, he said he has been grappling with his own mortality. 

“It really creates this huge mental disaster,” he said.  

Samuel said he’s been left contemplating questions on whether he is a good person and a good father. 

“The hardest part of coping for me is that you have to go to the dark places and you have to be comfortable and you have to kind of shift into almost like Buddhist mode,” said Samuel. “There are cases of young people that die from it and that could be me and there’s nothing I can do to control it beyond everything that I’m doing.”

Samuel has run about 30 marathons and completed about half a dozen ironman triathlons. He is seen here at a finish line in 2019 with his son. (Submitted by David Samuel)

Samuel said he’s had video meetings with his friends and his two children, ages six and four, who were on vacation with their mother when he got infected and are staying with her while he isolates.

He said being so prepared has given him a sense of peace and that, although it hasn’t been easy, he isn’t as scared as he thought he’d be. 

Physical illness can heighten or create mental health issues, says psychiatrist 

Dr. Huma Aftab is a consultation liaison and psychiatrist, and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Her area of expertise is the mental health of people who are also physically ill.

Aftab said COVID-19 patients often face a lot of fear—both of the unknown and the possibility that they may have infected others.

“In general when people are sick and have any kind of illness usually they cope differently,” she said. “We do see anxiety, depression, the loss of control, fear of the unknown, [of] losing their independence.”

Aftab said a person’s mental reaction to facing an illness depends on factors including their personality type, coping style, support system and pre-existing mental health conditions.

She said COVID-19 patients can be left with PTSD as a result of hospitalization or isolation. She also said OCD and anxiety can be worsened.

Aftab said that someone’s mental health may be considered worrisome if everyday activities are affected. That could include trouble sleeping, concentrating, loss of interest in their life or the lives of their loved one’s, or feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. In those cases, she said a mental health professional should be screening and monitoring them.

She suggested using technology to connect with family members, like Samuel has done. She said it’s also a good idea to lean into things that give you purpose, whether it’s hobbies, connections with others or religion. 

“Build on whatever they have, like any kind of meaningful habits, meaningful relationships, meaningful ideas, continue to build on those.”

Samuel said he encourages everyone to follow public health measures. He said after the curve was flattened in Saskatchewan, he became overly confident and now is left wondering if being more diligent in recent weeks would’ve kept him from getting the virus.

“It’s quite obvious to me anyway that the fear isn’t there anymore and COVID is on the rise again,” said Samuel. “So I think that it’s important to distinguish between situations worth celebrating and situations worth learning from.”

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