It was the first full weekend of March when David Lat and his husband were eating at one of their favorite restaurants – Blackbarn on East 26th St. – and both found the food to be strangely devoid of taste.
“We thought maybe the kitchen was having an off night because we didn’t know at the time that loss of taste was a COVID-19 symptom,” recalled Lat.
Over the next few days, both Lat and his husband, Zach Shemtob, came down with flu-like symptoms. For Shemtob it amounted to a week of bad flu symptoms but for Lat, it was the start of a long fight for his life.
Symptoms began with a fever, chills, and aches. Initially, Lat didn’t think it was COVID-19, since there were so few confirmed cases in New York City at that time.
“It felt like a standard case of flu,” said Lat.
But by Thursday of that week, he started to get a dry, hacking cough.
“This was when I began to think I might have contracted the coronavirus,” said Lat.
By the weekend, he started having shortness of breath. By Sunday March 15, his symptoms were bad enough that he went to his local emergency room at NYU Langone.
However, given the scarcity of testing, the hospital would not give him a COVID-19 test. Typically, to be tested around that time, you needed to have traveled to an impacted area or been exposed to an infected person. Doctors did not think he was sick enough to be admitted, so he was sent home.
The next day, he was gasping for air and went back to the hospital.
“When you have shortness of breath, you fear that at a certain point you simply won’t be able to breathe,” said Lat. “. . . At that point they recognized the severity of my symptoms. They admitted me, gave me supplemental oxygen, and tested me for COVID-19. That evening, while I was lying in my hospital bed, a doctor came in and told me what I already suspected: I had COVID-19.”
The next day, Lat – a legal recruiter and founder of the Above the Law blog – tweeted out a picture of himself from his hospital bed with the caption, “Oxygen is a hell of a drug.”
“I am constantly weak and winded,” Lat tweeted from the hospital that day. “I’m hooked up to oxygen 24/7. Even with oxygen, the simplest tasks are extremely difficult.”
For instance, he said moving five feet from the bed to the bathroom left him feeling like he’d collapse if he stood too long. It took him 90 minutes to eat his lunch because he kept getting winded.
His parents are both doctors – Dr. Emmanuel Lat and Dr. Zenda Garcia Lat. He said this was particularly helpful during his hospitalization.
“When doctors came by my room to speak with me, I would call my parents on my cellphone and loop them in by speakerphone,” Lat explained. “They were able to ask questions of my doctors and advocate for me to receive the best possible care.
“My mother, who is a pathologist, was especially active,” continued Lat. “She would read studies in medical journals about different treatments and raise them with my care team. At times she interrogated them. It felt like an attending physician questioning residents. I worried that my doctors might get annoyed, but they were always very patient.”
Lat said another challenge was that the hospital was just starting to deal with the influx of the novel coronavirus patients. He said they did have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), “which I think was an advantage of my being an early patient,” Lat said.
He said the doctors and nurses told him that they wouldn’t check on him as often as usual because every time they did, they had to change their PPE and wash hands before entering and after exiting. There was a garbage pail outside of his room where they would discard their PPE after each visit.
‘You Better Not Get Put on a Ventilator’
For Lat, this was the sickest he’d ever felt in his life. He had been in overall good health, having twice completed the New York City Marathon, and still works out regularly. Lat, who turns 45 in June, said the only preexisting condition he had was exercise-induced asthma, which he said he managed well with an inhaler.
Following a few days in stable condition, by Friday, March 20 Lat had taken a turn for the worse.
His oxygen levels were dropping, and his lungs were filling with fluid. He was told he would need to be intubated.
His father had warned him about intubation just a few days earlier.
“You better not get put on a ventilator. Not everyone survives that,” his father told him.
In fact, published reports indicated as high as an 88% death rate for COVID-19 patients placed on a ventilator.
“So when I heard I needed to be intubated, I was terrified,” Lat said.
On a ventilator in critical condition at the intensive care unit of the hospital, Lat was fighting for his life.
Meanwhile, all his loved ones could do was wait for updates and pray.
Lat said the experience was agonizing for his parents and husband. They weren’t allowed to visit, and they would only get updates from the hospital about once a day.
“They are so overwhelmed,” Lat’s parents said of the hospital on March 24 in an emotional Facebook post. “Today, after much effort and going through so many different channels of trying to get a call back, the physician’s assistant finally called at 3:45 p.m. We had been in limbo all day.”
The post explained that he was still in ICU intubated on a ventilator, heavily sedated and on the much-discussed combination of hydrochloroquine and azithromycin, along with an experimental drug to reduce inflammation in the lungs.
During his COVID-19 battle, Lat was also treated with Kaletra, an antiviral used to treat HIV/AIDS and clazakizumab, an IL-6 inhibitor for dealing with “cytokine storm,” an immune response in which the body starts attacking its own cells, instead of the virus.
“It will take a while before we really see much progress but at least he is stable,” Lat’s parents wrote. “. . . We still need a lot of prayers so please do not stop praying for him. Prayers are our best weapon.”
Meanwhile, during Lat’s week on a ventilator, two publications discussed writing obituary articles about him. One went so far as to assign a reporter, who contacted a friend of Lat’s. This practice is not uncommon with aging and dying celebrities and other public figures.
“I was quite flattered, and I wasn’t offended,” said Lat. “I was in critical condition in the ICU for a week, so I can’t blame them for thinking I might have died. But I’m glad this didn’t come to pass, of course.”
Instead, after six days, Lat’s family and friends’ prayers were answered. His condition had improved, and he was taken off the ventilator. He was soon transferred out of the ICU where he continued his recovery.
“I actually don’t remember the moment I was taken off the ventilator,” said Lat. “I was given a lot of sedation, so the first 24-to-48 hours post-extubation are a bit of a haze. I usually write very proper text messages, but I sent this one message to my dad during this period that was barely coherent and included a dozen random emojis. I was a bit out of it.”
‘Thankful to Be Alive’
To the delight of friends, family and interested-followers, Lat felt well enough to deliver a Facebook message on March 29.
“I’m doing worlds better than I was this time last week, when I was unconscious and intubated, having a machine breathe for me because I couldn’t do so myself,” wrote Lat. “. . . I know that I will be forever thankful for all of the prayers and thoughts that you have sent me and my family over the past few weeks. I will also be eternally grateful to all the wonderful doctors, nurses, and other dedicated healthcare professionals who are on the front lines of our battle with [coronavirus] here at NYU Langone Health and elsewhere.”
At that time, Lat was grateful to be alive but also knew he was not out of the woods just yet.
“I require 24/7 oxygen, I need a nurse’s help for even the simplest tasks, and I only just now progressed to solid foods,” wrote Lat. “. . . A number of patients released from the hospital after seemingly successful fights with [coronavirus] have been readmitted (and some of these patients have even died).”
Lat’s condition continued to improve and one night while sleeping his oxygen was removed. He was able to breathe on his own again. Lat described the hospitalized week post-ventilator as “basically learning to breathe again.” The doctors gradually reduced the supplemental oxygen until he could breathe “room air.”
Then on April 1, after 17 days in the hospital, he received the news he had been waiting for – he would be discharged that day. He took a smiling selfie from his hospital bed and thanked the hospital staff for saving his life.
Lat was happy to be reunited with his family again. When he and his husband came down with COVID-19, Lat’s parents cared for their young son.
“We didn’t really explain much to our son, who’s only 2. He just knew that papa was sick. When my husband and I both started to get sick, we asked my parents, who live in the New Jersey suburbs, to pick him up. So he was in his grandparents’ care for most of this time, which was a godsend.”
Lat is continuing his recovery and it’s been a slow, steady process. He still has a residual cough and shortness of breath from mild exertion. He lost 15 pounds in three weeks but is now back eating “whatever the heck I want, at least for now.
“I’m definitely not back to exercising, other than walking — and I still have a hoarse voice, a result of damage to my vocal cords from the ventilator. I could have some long-term or even permanent lung damage, but my pulmonologist tells me it’s too early to know. That’s how it is with so many things about this disease – it’s been around for just several months, so we don’t know what its long-term effects are.”
Lat, a former federal prosecutor and Yale Law School graduate who is currently managing director of Lateral Link’s New York office, has a new outlook on life from the experience.
“I’m extremely grateful, thankful to be alive, and thankful for all the support I received from family, friends, and total strangers during my illness,” said Lat. “I also have a better sense of perspective. I don’t get upset over minor things because I know how small some things are in the grand scheme of things. I’m guessing this will fade over time, but I’m hoping I don’t entirely lose it.”
Editor’s note: The photos included with this article were provided by David Lat and are used here with his permission.