Physical therapist assistant Wes Myers, right, prepares Michael Chambless for an electrical stimulator for neuropathy during his physical therapy session at Methodist Outpatient Therapy in Flowood, Miss., Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. Chambless has a condition, generally called drop foot, which makes it difficult for him to lift the front part of his foot. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

After 18 days hooked up to a ventilator, Michael Chambless woke up. The 60-year-old from Brandon was 70 pounds lighter and paralyzed below the neck, but he was alive.

When Chambless was diagnosed with COVID-19 on July 23 of last year, he, like more than half of Mississippians at the time, was unvaccinated. He’d never caught the flu despite never getting a flu shot, and felt similarly about the COVID vaccine.

“I felt like: ‘I’m okay. It ain’t gonna happen to me,’” Chambless, then a high school softball coach, said. 

But it did happen to him, and after months of working to regain the ability to perform basic daily tasks, Chambless is one of millions who continue to suffer from long-lasting symptoms and injuries after a coronavirus infection. 

It started during a shift at his part-time greeter job at Bass Pro Shop when a colleague told Chambless he looked sick and should get checked out. He tested positive for the virus at a nearby MEA clinic. From there, all he could do was go home and wait. 

After several days of bed rest, the symptoms ramped up. When Chambless returned to the clinic and complained of fatigue, fever and shortness of breath, he was immediately transported to St. Dominic’s Hospital. During his second day at the hospital, Chambless was moved to the intensive care unit. On the third day, he was put on a ventilator.

Chambless stayed on that ventilator for just under three weeks. The day before he woke up, his doctor told his siblings he had a 50/50 chance for survival. Fearing the worst, his family had already begun making funeral arrangements.

By the time he woke up, Mississippi was the COVID capital of the world. Rapid virus spread fueled by the delta variant decimated the state’s hospital system, demoralized already weary frontline workers, and disrupted school for nearly every student and parent in the state. 

The only thing Chambless remembers from his first 12 days off the ventilator are his crazy fever dreams. In one, he had gotten married and adopted a chimpanzee. He and his wife were hiding out in the woods in a motorhome because a group of Russians were trying to steal their chimpanzee son.

After regaining lucidity, Chambless realized he was paralyzed below the neck. His brother had to feed him and wipe the tears away when he was overwhelmed by the severity of his illness. On Aug. 21, Chambless was moved to KPC Promise Hospital of Vicksburg, the only hospital in the state that had an open bed for him to begin his recovery.  

Patients with severe COVID like Chambless often experience bodily damage such as inflammation in the brain or lung damage that is easier to diagnose and treat. Others, even those who experienced only mild symptoms, develop a chronic illness called long COVID, which studies estimate that between 10 to 30% of people infected with COVID-19 might develop. 

Those who have developed long COVID experience a wide variety of symptoms that are more difficult to explain and treat — brain fog, chronic fatigue, joint pain. Many have been dismissed by doctors when they seek help or have been told that their illness is psychosomatic. 

“I mean, we’ve heard it all,” said Rhonda Meadows, a nurse practitioner at Methodist Rehabilitation Center who helps run the Recovery After COVID clinic where Chambless is now a patient. “A lot of patients come here and say, ‘I think everybody’s thought I was crazy, but this is what’s happening.’ And when we say, ‘Oh, you know, we’ve had patients complain of the same thing. Let’s try to work through it,’ they are so relieved.”

Chambless, who has coached high school sports in Mississippi for 37 years, is no stranger to injury and has helped many students through physical therapy over the years. What he was in for was nothing like a torn ACL, however. He was starting from ground zero.

“It’s a different world when you have to redo everything,” Chambless said. 

He had to relearn how to talk, sit up on his own and feed himself. Every basic act of self-reliance was a monumental task. Though he’d been “strong as a bull” all his life, when Chambless started physical rehabilitation he could barely do ten reps curling two-and-a-half pound weights. 

“I thought: ‘boy, I’ve come a long way, aint I?”

At his lowest point, it was the encouragement from friends and family that kept Chambless going. After turning on his phone for the first time in over a month, he was surprised to see the dozens of messages he’d received since being admitted, letting him know they were rooting for him and that he was in their prayers.

“It sounded like I’d won something at the casino,” Chambless said. 

Slowly, Chambless’ condition began to improve. He still raves about how good the food at Promise was, where shrimp po-boys and hamburgers helped him regain most of the weight he’d lost while intubated. Though his caretakers encouraged Chambless to eat healthier, it didn’t make a difference. 

 “I told the lady: ‘Look, you’re wasting that stuff sending it to me,’” Chambless said.  “I don’t eat anything green, except skittles and M&M’s.”

After a few weeks at Promise, Chambless was transferred to Jackson’s Methodist Rehabilitation Center on Nov. 1. When he arrived, Chambless still couldn’t get into his wheelchair without help. 

“I’m a 60-year-old man, and my biggest ambition in life right now is to be able to get up, walk to the bathroom and take a dump,” Chambless told one of his nurses.

The inpatient recovery program was intense, involving three hours of intense physical therapy each day. Chambless told his caretakers he wanted to be home by Thanksgiving. He achieved that goal and was sent home with his brother on Nov. 23. 

 Chambless is still receiving care through Methodist’s Recovery After COVID Clinic. Three times a week, Chambless’ brother drives him to an outpatient therapy clinic in Flowood. 

He’s lifting 50 pounds on the leg press now but still can’t walk on his own due to a condition called foot drop, where nerve damage prevents a person from lifting the front part of their foot. His therapy involves using a device to send high frequency electrical signals into his feet, with the hope of regenerating his damaged nerve endings. 

Chambless has been fully vaccinated since December and will get a booster as soon as he’s eligible. Though he maintains he’s not a “vaccine pusher” and strongly believes in a person’s right to choose, he encourages everyone to get vaccinated. 

“That’s probably the biggest regret in my life,” Chambless said. “If I could go back, I would go back and take it. The first time they said ‘vaccine,’ I would have been lined up.”

Seeing the severity of his illness has even motivated some of Chambless’ friends and family to get vaccinated. Chambless’ brother told him that he’d take a booster every month if it meant avoiding what he went through. 

Looking forward, Chambless plans to return to his Bass Pro job in March, where he will greet customers from his wheelchair. Being so immobile will prevent him from returning to coaching softball at Pelahatchie High School, but with 36 district conference championships and three state championships under his belt, he’s pleased with the totality of his coaching career. 

“It’s a day by day process but I’m so much better than I was. And I’m just grateful to still be here,” Chambless said. 

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.