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My COVID-19 diary: ‘My kidneys were failing. I was scared and in disbelief. All I could do was cry.’

On his 25th birthday, Rhoden Fellow Calvin Sykes reflects on how his bout with COVID-19 nearly cost him his life

Happy Birthday To Me

Happy Birthday To Me

Happy Birthday To Meeeee

Happy Birthday To Me

Last spring, I wasn’t sure if I would be alive to sing that song ever again. My world has changed so much since my last birthday Jan. 26, 2021, mostly because of COVID-19.

I first tested positive for COVID-19 on April 26, 2021. I was finishing up my second semester of grad school at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, and looking forward to beginning my Rhoden Fellowship at The Undefeated. I was 24, active and in relatively good health, so I thought the diagnosis would be something similar to a common cold. However, I was sadly mistaken.

My initial symptoms included body aches, chills, vomiting and a constant cough. Because I have asthma, my main concern was having shortness of breath. Unfortunately, things would get far worse than that. One morning, I woke up in pain and too weak to stand up. My mother, who was at her home in Miami, urged me to call the paramedics to transport me to the nearest hospital. Once there, I sat in a room for a couple of hours, only to have the medical staff brush off my symptoms and send me home. I went back to my apartment, still experiencing intense chest pains, chills and vomiting. At the time I had a roommate, so quarantining wasn’t going to be easy. While I tested positive, he tested negative, so I stayed in my room, only leaving twice a day to dash to the kitchen, fully masked, of course.

I was on the phone with my mother every day. I sounded awful, but she was constantly encouraging me and praying with me, telling me that I would get through this. Nevertheless, my pain got worse. The next day, I was still so weak that I had to use my fraternity step cane just to walk to the bathroom. Once again, I called the paramedics to take me back to the hospital. This time, the wait to see someone was four hours. I waited for a couple of hours in a cold room with other sick patients before deciding again to just go home.

My symptoms persisted throughout the night. When I woke up the next morning, my urine was PURPLE (which I now know is a sign of severe dehydration or kidney damage). However, I wasn’t really bothered by my colored urine. At that point, I was focused on the excruciating pain. It became so intense that I blacked out on my couch later that day. After regaining consciousness, I immediately called the paramedics and urged the medical team to transport me to a different hospital, which they did. Once there, I recognized my nurse as a fellow FAMU Rattler, which immediately made me feel more comfortable.

I remember falling asleep in the hospital room while watching my favorite ESPN show, Pardon the Interruption, before suddenly being awakened by six doctors transporting me to the Intermediate Cardiac Care Unit (ICCU) center. I had no idea what was going on, but at that moment, the severity of the situation became clear. This was serious. Upon arriving at the ICCU, I saw other patients connected to ventilators and life support machines. All I could think was, “Are they about to hook me up too? Will I ever make it out of here?”

As it turns out, my kidneys were failing. I was scared and in disbelief. All I could do was cry! To make matters worse, because of the hospital’s COVID-19 protocols, I had to face this latest diagnosis alone. NO VISITORS ALLOWED. I cried that whole night. When I finally called my parents to give them the news, I could hear the fear in my mother’s voice.

Calvin Sykes underwent dialysis treatment in May 2021 to remove waste products and excess fluid from his blood after his kidneys stopped working properly as he recovered from COVID-19.

Calvin Sykes

Eventually, a crew of doctors came to explain the next steps. They told me that I would be placed on dialysis and needed to undergo a minor procedure to place two holes right by my heart. I remember them covering my face with protective covering, hearing a random voice counting down and then waking up to catheters in my chest. Once I was awake, the doctors informed me that I “coded” (went into cardiac arrest) for several seconds. Wait, were they telling me that I just died and came back? I immediately called my mother. Throughout this whole experience, I believe this news was the most challenging for my mother to accept: Knowing that I was so close to death was inconceivable. I could feel her fear and devastation through the phone.

The following day, I began aggressive dialysis treatment. I sat in my hospital bed for about three hours as the machine cleaned out my blood. The treatments left my body weak, and even though the COVID-19 symptoms had subsided, I was still bedridden. I struggled to walk for more than 5 minutes, even with a walker. As my condition slowly began to improve, I developed some hope for a full recovery. That glimmer of hope faded, however, when my catheter malfunctioned during my second dialysis treatment, which meant another surgery. Another wave of grief and sadness came over me. First it was pain and vomiting, then purple urine, then surgery, then dialysis and now another surgery. They needed to cut another hole in my chest to insert a new catheter. I was stunned. No one tells you that all of this could happen if you contract COVID-19.

Before the next procedure, I was an emotional wreck and decided to post an SOS on Facebook to all my family and friends. It read, “I typically don’t air out my personal business, but I’d really appreciate your prayers for my health. I’ve been battling COVID, and my kidneys were shutting down as an effect. I’m currently in the ICU praying that GOD will move this mountain.” I was at my lowest point ever. I was tired and wanted to give up, to the point that I was starting to become at peace with death. However, my nurse noticed that I was not my usual optimistic self. That’s when she gave me some encouraging words. “You are still here for a reason. There was a patient with a similar situation who was 18 years old that died last week.” This conversation reminded me that it was a blessing to still be alive and have the opportunity to fight for my life. I was more inspired than ever to keep fighting for my life.

The second surgery was a success, but the journey did not end there. Next up? Rehab and learning how to walk again. I was also battling an IV infection from being pricked by a needle too many times. I kept thinking, “OK, what else can go wrong?”

Thankfully, after a few weeks of treatment and rehab, I finally tested negative for COVID-19 and was approved to leave the hospital on May 28, 2021. Returning home felt like I was adjusting to a whole new life. Everything looked and felt different. My mother and brothers were there to embrace me and made sure I received excellent care. It felt good to be around family again after being alone in the hospital for so long. Still, I felt very weak and had lost a lot of weight. I’m 5-feet-7 and was down to about 115 pounds. After a week of resting and gaining some of my strength back, I continued dialysis treatment. I spent most of June working with my medical team to nurse my kidneys back to health. It was not easy juggling my recovery with school and other endeavors. I had severe chest pains from my catheter on the first day of my Rhoden Fellowship in early June 2021. Still, that didn’t stop me. I was more motivated than ever to be the best I could be. My concerns about an extended dialysis process subsided when my nephrologist informed me that my kidneys were back to functioning normally. My final diagnosis was an acute kidney injury.

I was able to complete the summer portion of my Rhoden Fellowship (all remote), where I wrote several stories for the website, and even traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, in July to cover the SWAC football media day. I was feeling good. However, even with my new lease on life, I was not looking forward to returning to campus in Tallahassee for in-person classes for the fall semester. Of course, I wanted to be back and have things be normal again for my final year as a college student. But I was nervous. Sure, FAMU set strict COVID-19 protocols for everyone’s return to campus, including requiring that all FAMU faculty, staff and students wear facial coverings while in public. But you know how students are. We often think we are invincible. Even I thought I was invincible before I tested positive.

On the first day of classes in August 2021, I was immediately overwhelmed by the large crowds of students gathered on campus. Some of them were wearing masks, many were not. It seemed like most were acting as if the pandemic had never happened. I started feeling pain in my chest and began having heart palpitations. I couldn’t control my breathing. I was having flashbacks of being sick and in the hospital. I was having a panic attack. That is when it became clear: Mentally, returning back to campus life was not going to be easy for me.

Calvin Sykes (left) interviews Florida A&M University coach Willie Simmons (right). Sykes is in his final semester at Florida A&M.

Vaughn Wilson

It took me a few weeks before I began participating in campus social events again. FAMU had its first home football game on Sept. 11, 2021, which I attended. Again, not a lot of social distancing going on. Most of FAMU’s games throughout the season were like that. So I just had to make sure that I was extra careful, limit who I was around and the number of campus events that I attended. Overall, the fall semester didn’t turn out too bad. Well, except for when I tested positive again at the end of December 2021. Thankfully, it was nothing like my first bout with COVID-19. Nothing more than a cough and a few sniffles.

I began my final semester of classes on Jan. 5, in person. Campus life is still pretty much the same as it was last semester. I’m still a bit anxious and a bit jumpy. Still, as I sit here on my 25th birthday, fully vaccinated and free of COVID-19, I am filled with so much gratitude. There were moments last year when I honestly did not think that I would be here to tell my story. But here I am, finishing my final semester at FAMU and preparing to graduate with a master’s degree in sports science in May. After everything that I have been through over the past year, just having the ability to be here and think about what lies ahead may just be my best birthday yet.

Calvin Sykes is a graduate student in sports science at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Fla. A native of Miami, Sykes was the sideline reporter for the Florida A&M Rattlers football from 2018-2020, program director for the school’s radio station WANM FM 90.5, and has written for HBCU GameDay.