In the first months of the pandemic of 2020 Dan Buth already had done a lot to avoid getting sick.
He had stopped social travel — a big adjustment; he loved to visit new places. All his classes at VCU School of Pharmacy had gone virtual, with no in-person interaction.
As a health student, Buth knew the importance of following safer health protocols.
Still, when his beloved grandfather died Buth felt obliged to attend the funeral. He reminded himself that other than being overweight he had no underlying health conditions. And at age 24, he was considered at minimal risk based on the existing understanding of the disease.
“Along with everyone else, I was concerned but not terribly afraid,” he says.
At that funeral in April 2020 he caught COVID-19 from a family member who was not showing any signs of illness.
Within days, Buth was running a fever and felt exhausted all the time. He lost his sense of taste and smell — telltale signs of COVID-19 — and found it hard to breathe. He managed to get through his final exams, which were held virtually, and reported to the closest hospital, Bon Secours St. Mary’s.
Buth says he doesn’t remember much about his first days in the ICU. He slept a lot. He suffered miserable digestive problems. He was given oxygen to augment his breathing — 70 liters of it a day.
As days in isolation and intensive care turned to weeks, Buth struggled to keep his natural optimism. As a student leader and recent president of the pharmacy school’s student government, Buth knew well the importance of hope. He kept in touch with family and school advisers who encouraged and supported him.
But it wasn’t easy. His doctors were trying to wean him off oxygen. But whenever they took him off, Buth could not breathe normally. They’d put him back on.
This went on for weeks. “There were times when I had given up hope that I would ever see my friends again, ever see my family again,” Buth acknowledges. “That my dreams of becoming a pharmacist wouldn’t come true.”
When he celebrated his 25th birthday in the ICU, Buth tried to put on a happy face for his family. It was around then, he says, “that I stopped dreaming and I began to pray.”
He decided to work with his health care team on an alternate plan. What if, rather than weaning him off oxygen entirely, the goal was to get him to the point where he could go home with oxygen needs low enough that he could manage them at home?
His physicians agreed. Over the next weeks, with his renewed sense of purpose, Buth managed to get to where he needed only 3 liters of oxygen a day.
Finally, after 49 days in the ICU, he could go home.
Buth offered to share his story to warn others in his age group not to be complacent.
Though Buth’s experience may seem unusual, he is not alone. As of the end of August 2020, 29% of U.S. hospitalizations for COVID-19 were for people between the ages of 18-49, according to the CDC.
Indeed, people in their 20s may be key sources of spreading the disease. Since many who contract the virus do not show symptoms early on — and in some cases never do — younger, overly confident people may be giving it to others who get seriously ill or die, the World Health Organization warned.
So far, about 25 million people worldwide have contracted the virus; almost 850,000 have died. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has almost 25% of the world’s COVID-19 cases. At least 180,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19.
Back in his apartment, with family members’ help, Buth continues to recover. He sometimes still needs an oxygen tank to help him breathe, he says, but he has been able to start his final year of pharmacy school virtually and plans to graduate on time with the rest of the Class of 2021.
He is watching for signs of lingering health problems that affect many who have survived COVID-19. He’s become an outspoken advocate for health practices such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and disinfecting surfaces.
And he says he’s learned firsthand the importance of listening to patients and empathizing with them.
“I know that I will be a better health care practitioner because of my experience,” Buth says.