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Patient Zero in Nevada’s COVID-19 fight mending after month in a coma

When Ronald Pipkins awoke from his coma, he wasn’t sure why he was in the hospital. He remembers thinking he had been in Alaska, spending time with his family.

That’s when doctors told him he had been in the hospital for about a month and was “patient zero” in Nevada’s now-raging battle against the new coronavirus.

Pipkins was admitted to the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas on March 2. Three days later, he became the first presumptive positive case in the state of Nevada.

The news shocked Pipkins, once he was well enough to hear it.

“In the coma, I felt like demons were keeping me trapped. But they didn’t realize they were messing with a Marine, and they can’t do that for too long,” Pipkins, 55, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Thursday from his hospital bed. “It was like a nightmare repeating itself over and over again, and when it was over, I woke up.”

The retired Marine private was the first of many Nevadans to go through the ordeal. As of Thursday, the state had reported more than 3,300 cases of COVID-19 and 142 deaths.

Pipkins’ battle with the disease was hard won, and he still has a ways to go to fully recover. But doctors say his condition has drastically improved: He has now tested negative for the virus twice and has been moved out of the intensive care unit.

He’ll soon be discharged and moved to a rehabilitation facility.

“I’m going to put everything on hold now and let my health be my priority,” he said. “I’ve got to get my running legs back in order, and by the time I do that, I’ll be ready for the next race.”

‘Never even thought about corona’

Pipkins began experiencing symptoms in mid-February, when he visited Seattle with his son, Ronald Jr., to check out the 17-year-old’s future school at Central Washington University.

The last few nights he was there, he began to feel cold and weak and had a hard time breathing. When he tried to exercise, he struggled to complete his regimen. He dropped six pounds in four days.

Though he knew he was sick, he didn’t think anything about the pandemic then ravaging Asia.

“My mind never even thought about corona at all,” he said.

When Pipkins got to the emergency room, he was initially admitted for pneumonia. When his fever spiked to 107, doctors tested him for COVID-19.

Early on, doctors at the VA hospital put him into a medically induced coma so Pipkins’ body could preserve the energy needed to fight the virus.

His daughter, Jaela, 19, said doctors told her that her dad might have to stay on dialysis daily because his kidneys were failing.

On March 7, the ventilator helping Pipkins breathe was set to its highest level — often a sign that a patient is losing a battle with a respiratory disease.

He showed some improvement the next morning but faced another crisis hours later when his labored breathing increased to 36 breaths per minute, far above the normal rate of 12 to 20 per minute.

“It was a roller coaster. The worst part was seeing his chest being pumped by the ventilator,” Jaela Pipkins said of the two weeks when she was able to see her dad through a glass partition. The hospital has since instituted a no-visitor policy to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The entire time, they were unsure of everything related to this virus, so they weren’t able to give me any definitive answers,” she said.

Road to recovery

Pipkins awoke from the coma at the end of March and became more alert in the days that followed. His kidneys started to recover, and he was weaned off the ventilator. He still needs a feeding tube, but doctors hope to remove that soon.

He calls the first two weeks after waking up “the darkness.”

“I felt like I was in a twilight zone, like I was in another world,” he said Thursday. “That was kind of torturous. I constantly prayed, because I felt God was with me.

“I created this world in my mind to keep myself pushing forward, so I would have something to look forward to.”

Each day since, he has picked up more energy. His social worker, former Army Sgt. Jim Powers, said Pipkins’ determination and that of the medical team both contributed to his recovery.

“You put the two together and it’s always a recipe for success, and it shows with him,” Powers said.

Pipkins spoke to his kids for the first time April 3, when Powers facilitated an emotional FaceTime call.

“I’m proud of you, and I love you,” he told them, struggling to be understood.

“I’m thirsty. I want a Popsicle and apples,” he added.

Now Pipkins is looking toward another milestone: getting back home.

“I just want to see my daughter and my son, give them hugs and kisses and cook them a fantastic gourmet meal,” he said.

He said he’s grateful to have family to take care of him, and he knows not everyone is so blessed.

“I know that there’s people dying all around the country, and I pray for them,” Pipkins said. “A lot of these people are alone.”

Pipkins’ family has set up a GoFundMe to help with his medical expenses and to ensure he gets the best care possible when he is discharged.

As of late Thursday, donors had contributed $4,500 to the fund, which seeks to raise $100,000.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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