OP-ED: When I almost died: My days battling coronavirus and what I remember the most

Rick Kogan
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Tribune writer Rick Kogan at Stan's Donuts & Coffee in Chicago in April, reporting on a story not long after his return to health. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — Last week, when I read my own obituary, I remembered the first time I almost died. It was a cold December morning in 1963 when I fell through and under the ice covering the south edge of the Lincoln Park lagoon and was rescued by my younger brother Mark and our friend Ty Bauler and we made it home and life went on.

The next time I almost died was when I was reporting a story for the Sun-Times and had a pistol shoved in my chest by a drug dealer on the West Side on an April night in 1981. His finger moved against the trigger. The gun clicked but did not fire. I turned and ran east on Madison Street and life went on.

Life comes with certain danger, risks, surprises. It always ends in death, of course, but along the way, as we confront its joys and pains and love and terror, we are on a rare and precious and sometimes frightening ride.

And so, the last time I almost died was on March 30 when I walked into Northwestern Memorial Hospital and after a few minutes was told by a pleasant nurse that I had a temperature of 103, was suffering from pneumonia (she showed me the X-rays) and likely had COVID-19, a diagnosis confirmed later that day, when another nurse said, “Now that’s a nasty one-two punch.”

I was taken by wheelchair up to a room on the then-just opened and relatively empty COVID ICU section, where I was helped into the bed. That is where I spent the next five touch-and-go, deeply dazed and intermittently introspective days and nights.

How it started: On that morning I moved into the hospital, I could barely walk, and my head felt like it was about to explode. Breathing was strenuous. The chills would shake my body. These troubles had been intensifying over the two previous weeks. Just the flu or a cold, I told myself, as I tried to operate as usual. Though I was over 60, I did not have any of the preexisting health troubles — diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. — that would put me at physical risk. So I worked on and wrote stories for this paper, exercised daily at a health club, had drinks or meals with a friend or two, took a river boat ride on what would have been a bright green river, except that its color dying and the St. Patrick’s Day parade had been canceled, as the city and the world began to shut down.

On Sunday, March 29, I hosted my “After Hours” WGN radio show from 9-11 p.m. No guests were allowed in the studios, so I talked on the phone to poet-tour boat guide J.J. Tindall, writer-artist Tony Fitzpatrick and dog trainer-entrepreneur Jennifer Boznos.

I barely remember those interviews and though each of these people would later tell me that I “did not sound like myself,” that is course, is their retrospective analysis.

I remember vaguely getting home and going to sleep. Early the next morning I was taken to the hospital by the wonderful, wise and very worried Kate with whom I have lived for the past decade.

Hooked up to oxygen, I was alone in a room but for the blaring of CNN hosts on TV and a parade of nurses and a few doctors, taking tests, asking questions and bringing in food that I barely touched. I was able to make some phone calls, very few, to bosses, my teenage daughter, very close friends. I was trying — and failing they have since told me — to sound positive, optimistic though I was frightened beyond any previous moment in my life. Dreams were filed with monsters.

Finally, oxygen levels acceptably high and fever gone, I got out. Weak and worried, I was taken to the apartment in which I live where, thanks to Kate and a couple of other friends, the ice box was stocked, and a bed was ready for me. Kate had to move out, told by doctors to quarantine for at least a week, though we both now believe that I was most contagious during the weeks before the hospital. She tested negative as soon as she could get a test.

I slept and watched TV and had the weirdest dreams and hobbling headaches. But with each morning, I felt modestly better and that is what I told the people from the hospital who called every afternoon to see how I was feeling.

And so, Kate came home. I started to take walks. I wore a mask.

My obituary: Some of my editors suggested that I tell of my experiences in print. I declined, feeling that my story was of no special significance or could be of no help to others. It would, I argued, be self-aggrandizing, too personal. “There are people dying,” I said.

I have spent many years in thousands of stories not getting personal, trying to keep my private life private. Punctuating those years have been many obituaries, a particularly intimate and emotional form of journalism, at least for me, because many of them were about people I knew and some of them were about people I loved. For whom the bell tolls … and all of that.

When I started at the Tribune, more than three decades ago, I was asked to update an obituary of Studs Terkel because I had known Studs most of my life.

“But he’s only 72,” I told some editor or other.

“We need to have it,” the editor said. “Just in case.”

I never did write it then but rather waited until Studs died at a full 96 years old on Halloween in 2008. Before and after that I wrote the obituaries of such close friends as Mike Royko, Roger Ebert, Gary Comer, Tim Weigel and on and on. Many of them were younger than I am now, and I would often over the years think of them and the years and adventures missed.

It was last week when I learned that while I had been hospitalized, a couple of editors had assigned a staff member to write my obituary. This has been a common practice at newspapers, when staffs were more robust, to prepare obituaries in advance, lest they had to scramble when death came calling to some notable person.

Nice to be deemed notable, I suppose, but reading my obit was nevertheless jarring, spooky and surreal. I read what one of the paper’s most stylish writers (and a friend) had to say about me: “A newspaperman of inimitable elegance, a gravel-voiced WGN radio host and a singularly empathetic chronicler of the flawed yet colorful humans in the patch he called home.”

Flattering? To be sure. Premature? I could not be happier about that.

In the months since my bout, I have returned to what I was before it all — I think. I volunteered to be part of a two-year long “COVID-19 Convalescent Blood BioBank,” a Northwestern University sponsored study that might benefit future patients.

I admit to being alarmed by the increasingly frequent stories about the tens of thousands of people collectively known as “long-haulers,” who after “recovering” are displaying lingering health problems. Some are serious: damage to kidneys, nervous system, heart and lungs. Some long-haulers speak of fatigue and loss of smell and taste; some suffer fevers, problems with concentration and memory, dizzy spells, hair loss, and other troubles.

I have flirted with some of those symptoms, including a nasty eye infection. But still, every time I can’t remember a name or what day it is, I wonder, deep inside, whether any of this is COVID-related or simply the natural infirmities that come with getting older.

I suppose now is the time to offer some profound thoughts about my life and how COVID has changed it. I could give you some appropriate song lyrics or lines from a poem to illustrate this.

I will not do that but will tell you that I am grateful beyond words to still be around and that the places I visited in the weeks before being hospitalized — Tribune offices, health club, WGN studios — had been made safe and clean and that no Kogan-caused cases were reported, as far as I know. But I read about others here and elsewhere who had been far more damaged by the illness, spent longer in the hospital and died, and my heart breaks a bit for these people I do not know and for those who did know and loved them.

Close to home: I only know four other people who have been hospitalized with this illness. One of them is the comic Tom Dreesen, who was born and raised in south suburban Harvey and was a pall bearer at the funeral of his friend and mentor Frank Sinatra.

He tells me via email from his home in Los Angeles: “I woke up Monday Aug. 17 aching all over and just feeling crappy. On Wednesday, Aug. 19, I took the test and tested positive. No, I wasn’t afraid at first. That came later. I called my family doctor and told him the circumstances and he told me to quarantine myself in the home, keep a constant eye on my temperature and I had my daughter buy me an Oximeter at a drug store so I could check my oxygen levels. Started taking Tylenol every six hours. On Monday Aug. 31st, I felt worse. That’s when I got a little scared. I called the doctor and he recommended I go immediately to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I spent five days there and they put me on a steroid program and after three days I was feeling better and two days later they released me. Now I feel great. My appetite is back, I’m exercising again, slowly, and my spirits are high because the doctors tell me I am COVID free and will be the rest of my life. The incredible amount of love and prayers from family and friends humbled me greatly. I am so grateful to them all.”

One of the first stories I wrote after getting back on my feet was the obituary of a man named Philman Williams. He was my friend, the lively and smart doorman in the building in which I live.

Williams liked to stop for breakfast at the Billy Goat Tavern every morning. He liked to read. He loved his grown children and grandchildren. He loved to travel and told me in March about his trip to celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He said he had a “great time in a city jammed with people, all ages and types.” He died in Jackson Park Hospital on April 1. He was 70 years old.

Within weeks he was among the many subjects of a chilling and sad story from ProPublica. Titled “The First 100,” it detailed how, of the first 100 of the city’s COVID-19 victims, 70 were Black, noting of these people that “their lives were rich, and their deaths cannot be dismissed as inevitable.”

Writing his obituary, I talked to Williams’ daughter and to his ex-wife. I talked to some of his friends. I heard them laugh and I heard them cry.

COVID is not about me. It is about all of us.

For whom the bell tolls … and all of that. And life goes on.