COVID-19 turns heart and mind of survivor

Wichitan Kasey Beltz says he elected not to get a COVID-19 vaccine because he didn't trust the government, the Centers for Disease Control or public health officials.

Then the 62-year-old small business owner came down with the deadly virus that to date has claimed more than 670,000 lives nationwide.

Over the next nine days, he eventually would turn away from the agenda-driven information of politicians and instead rely on God and the medical expertise of a team doing all that they could so he might return home to his wife and nearly two dozen employees.

"This experience dramatically moved me from a born-again Christian conservative anti-vax stance to a born-again Christian, God-loyal conservative vaccine advocate," wrote Beltz in a thank-you letter to the 5SE care team at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis.

"I want each and every one of you (my 'blue team professionals' because every team needs a name) to know that as a survivor, you are my heroes."

A dark journey

Kasey experienced his first symptoms on Thursday, Aug. 12, which he brushed off as allergies; two days later, as his symptoms worsened, he and his wife, Jeriel, who wasn't yet experiencing symptoms, both went to be tested for COVID-19. Hers came back negative, but his was positive.

Back at home, Kasey took steroids and cough medicine to help alleviate his symptoms and used a pulse oximeter to monitor his oxygen levels, which ranged from the high 70s to low 80s.

On Monday, Aug. 16, he called his primary care physician's office and was advised that if he had difficulty breathing, he should go to the hospital.

Kasey spent the next seven days trying to tough it out at home. During the last three of those days, he could hear the crackling sound of COVID-19 further ravaging his lungs and putting his life at risk. Finally, on Aug. 23, Jeriel convinced him to go to Ascension Via Christi St. Francis.

Once in the ER, the grave expressions on what he could see of his caregivers’ faces and the questions they asked gave him his first awareness of the seriousness of his situation.

"You're DNR, right?" asked one of the blue-garbed caregivers doing his assessment before telling him, “You're going upstairs."

Kasey was transported to a semi-private room on the COVID-19 medical-surgical unit, where in his oxygen-deprived state, everything became an eerie and surreal blue blur.

But he remembers them putting in his IV and hanging the bag of fluids and medication, which he says he never asked what it was, what any long-term effects of it might be or whether it was FDA-approved and lifting his shirt so they could inject in his belly a medicine that helps prevent COVID-19-related blood clots. Again, he asked no questions, saying simply, "Give it to me."

In addition to the medicine, Kasey was instructed on what he could do to better his chances of survival: Roll over to a different side of his body every 30 minutes, make frequent use of the incentive spirometer, a handheld gadget designed to help clear the lungs, and hope and pray that the medications and high-flow oxygen therapy did their job.

From 'me to thee'

At first, he says, he was annoyed by the caregiver who told him soon after he was admitted that the virus was deadly and that if he survived he should encourage all his friends and family to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Then I looked at him and realized he was only giving a recital, one he had done so many times," Beltz wrote. "The emotion was gone, replaced with resignation."

It wasn't until four days later, Kasey says, that he hit his turning point and realized how stubborn and selfish he had been. Instead of just giving lip service to God, he determined that he would do everything his care team asked of him. He also would pray for his roommate who was 24 hours ahead of him in his illness, for Jeriel who by then was infected by COVID-19, and for the staff who had been battling the virus for nearly two years.

"If I could, I wanted to give them a win," he says, finally recognizing the pain of the many losses they'd experienced.

"It was my 'me to thee' moment,” says Beltz, providing the peace he needed to get some rest for the first time in a week.

A renewed sense of purpose

As his health improved, Kasey began to question all that he thought he knew about COVID-19, the Delta variant and the vaccine — information gleaned primarily from the internet and non-medical professionals.

He began to interview his care team and get the facts from the same team to whom he had entrusted his life and became convinced that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective and the shot of hope the nation needs to put the pandemic behind us.

By Aug. 31, Jeriel had fully recovered and Kasey was ready to return home, albeit with some lingering effects, such as a loss of strength and energy, a blood clot in one leg for which he takes daily aspirin, coughing fits that can be brought on by any exertion or even a hot shower, and pleurisy in his right lung.

But he has also come away determined to share his story and in doing so help others to sort through the misinformation. He wants friends, family, his employees and others in the community to know that COVID-19 is real, deadly and dynamic and that getting the COVID-19 vaccine helps reduce your odds of becoming acutely ill or dying.

At the very least, he says, keep an open mind, turn on your agenda filter, do your research and make sure that you're getting your facts from credible medical sources rather than politicians and agenda-driven posts on social media.

"Jesus performed a very selfless act and submitted to the cross for us, that's supposed to be our example," Kasey says. "It's time to stop selfishly thinking about 'me' and instead think of 'thee' or others in leaning toward our civic duty."