Firefighter who rarely gets sick ends up in emergency department with COVID-19

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The Tidelands Health Newsroom

Published on July 13, 2020

Firefighter who rarely gets sick ends up in emergency department with COVID-19

Firefighter Marc Perez isn’t the kind of guy who gets sick – ever.

The 37-year-old enjoys being active and working out, does physical training for work and eats healthy.

“In the 12 years I’ve known him, he’s been sick maybe once with the flu, but he was better in 24 hours,” his wife, Denise, said.

Denise and Marc PerezSo, when a little exhaustion after a 48-hour shift evolved into nausea, a temperature and eventually a cough, chills and near-debilitating shortness of breath, Denise knew something fierce was attacking Marc’s body. Over eight days, three trips to an urgent care, one trip to the emergency department at Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital in Murrells Inlet and multiple tests, the family finally learned the culprits: strep throat, pneumonia and the wallop of COVID-19.

“It was just so scary,” Denise said. “He is so healthy. He eats healthy, works out regularly. He is always super active. He is the epitome of a fit person.

“To see how sick he really got, it kind of took us both back. It was just so scary how quickly it happened -- from flu symptoms to, ‘Now we’re in trouble,’ and he can’t breathe.”

Marc, a lieutenant with Horry County Fire Rescue and a firefighter with Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department, took precautions to protect himself from the virus – wearing a mask, observing social distancing and practicing good hand hygiene. But he knew in his line of work he was still at risk – particularly as Horry County emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot.

His symptoms began June 18 with fatigue and nausea. At the time, he thought he’d eaten something that didn’t agree with him. He simply rested, which was a challenge for the super-active firefighter.

But the symptoms persisted – and worsened. After a few days, he had developed a temperature and was still fatigued. He and his family became even more concerned – this just wasn’t like him.

 “I couldn’t get better,” Marc said. “I was just getting worse.”

‘Maybe this isn’t just the flu’

The family suspected COVID-19 was the culprit. But a day before he developed symptoms, Marc was tested for COVID-19 as a precaution, and the results came back negative. An antibody test showed he hadn’t had the virus. But something was definitely wrong, and he was speculating about the cause -- could he have a kidney infection or something more severe?

“I was getting more frustrated,” Marc said. “I never get sick like that.”

Denise grew increasingly concerned. The flu-like symptoms persisted. A trip to an urgent care indicated it was a viral infection. Additional tests showed nothing. Marc continued to take over-the-counter medications. No relief.

“We could not get his fever to go down,” Denise said.

He developed persistent congestion. Then came the loss of smell – apparent when Marc couldn’t catch a whiff of a strong peppermint diffuser Denise had turned on that was filling the room with the scent.

“Maybe this isn’t just the flu,” Denise recalls thinking at the time. “It’s got to be something else. In the back of your mind, you’re saying, ‘He is a super-healthy 37-year-old.’ We had never seen him this sick before.”

By that point, eight days after his first symptoms, Marc was wiped out. He wasn’t eating much – he lost 10 pounds – and he didn’t have the energy to shower or even stand for long. His family – Denise and their two sons, ages 4 and 2 – would find him lying in unusual places around their Murrells Inlet home – on the floor, on the patio – wherever he would stop to rest because his body just couldn’t go anymore.

On June 26, Denise took her husband to the emergency department at Tidelands Waccamaw – a place the firefighter is used to walking in with patients but never as a patient himself.

Marc recognized the eyes of doctors and nurses he knew peering from above their face masks, and he pleaded for them to help him get better.

“At this point, I can’t just lay down and hope I get better tomorrow,” Marc recalls saying to the care team. “I need help. I’m at your mercy.”

Rapid testing confirmed he was suffering from strep throat and pneumonia. And he received the results of his COVID-19 test – positive – two days later.

The family finally had answers and a course of treatment. The emergency department team prescribed  antibiotics to treat the strep and pneumonia. Like many people, Marc was able to recuperate from COVID-19 at home without hospitalization.

“He immediately felt better,” Denise said. “We are so grateful for the staff. It just meant a lot to get some answers.”

‘The weirdest virus’

Marc's sons made a sign thanking Tidelands Health for helping their dad get better.Dr. William Richmond, an emergency department physician at Tidelands Health, reminds community members not to ignore symptoms of COVID-19 – including fever, cough, shortness of breath, nausea and a loss of taste or smell – and seek medical care when needed. Delaying care for major symptoms could lead to a more severe illness or the need for more aggressive treatments.

“Our team continues to see more and more patients coming into our emergency departments with severe symptoms because of COVID-19,” he said. “The virus is aggressively spreading in our community, so It’s crucial that everyone continue to take the steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 – wearing a face mask around others, practicing social distancing, frequently washing your hands. We don’t want to end up treating you or your loved ones in our emergency department.”

As their dad recovered at home, Marc and Denise’s sons – Mickey, 4, and Mariano, 2 – made a special thank you for the caregivers at Tidelands Waccamaw, where both boys were born.

“Our boys wanted to make sure to say thank you for healing their daddy! We appreciate all you did for our family and for our community during this time. Thank you from a very worried wife,” Denise wrote in a message to Tidelands Health.

Neither Denise nor her sons tested positive for COVID-19. But she remembers a bout with a sickness before the virus became so prevalent and wonders if she and her boys might have had it then.

“It’s the weirdest virus,” she said.

Ten days after his trip to the emergency department, Marc worked out for the first time and was preparing to return to work later in the week. The workout – which took him twice as long as usual – proved he was still recovering but finally on the mend.

“I’ve got a ways to go, but I feel back to normal,” he said.

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Tidelands Health is the region’s largest health care provider, serving the Carolinas at four hospitals and more than 60 outpatient locations. More than 2,500 employee, physician and volunteer partners are working side by side with our communities to transform the health of our region – promoting wellness, preventing illness, encouraging recovery and restoring health.