‘How is this possible? What are the odds?’

The Graveson family, on what the coronavirus has done to them
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 16: Matthew Graveson, 16, left to right, Sherry Graveson, George Graveson, and Timothy Graveson, 15, pose for aportrait outside their home on Sunday August 16, 2020 in Alexandria, VA. Matthew and Timothy both spent over a month in the hospital due to Covid-19. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Matthew Graveson, 16: Everybody keeps saying that what happened to us is a miracle, and I know that’s true. But another part of me is like: Really? You think I’m lucky? Because I don’t always feel lucky.

At every stage of what we went through, I look back and it’s like: How is this possible? What are the odds?

About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.

Timothy Graveson, 15: I didn’t even know what a ventilator was. I didn’t know about ECMO or life support. I never had any idea how bad this could get, which is probably what kept me from panicking.

George Graveson (father): I got the virus first. We were taking aggressive measures to social distance, but I must have picked it up at the grocery store or somewhere. I had a tiny cough, and then I had chills one afternoon. It wasn’t anything huge. It wasn’t super drastic, and if one person in the family was set up to get hit hard based on age or whatever, it was probably going to be me.

Sherry Graveson (mother): I tested positive and it was nothing. I barely had a sniffle. No fever. No cough. Why? Why was it nothing? My daughter was in the house with us all the time, and she never even got it. None of it makes any sense.

Matthew: We were so careful. I wasn’t allowed to see friends, even though I asked my parents like a thousand times a day. We wore masks. We quarantined more than any family I know. I remember texting one of my friends and saying: “Even if I get the virus, I’m not that worried. Maybe for my parents, but for us it will probably be like a cold.” I thought kids weren’t supposed to get the virus as bad. I thought it wasn’t common for kids to infect other people and pass it on.

Sherry: Matthew started complaining about a runny nose on Tuesday. Then it was pinkeye symptoms on Wednesday, and the fever came after that. We tried every possible way to manage it at home, but his temperature wouldn’t come down. He was lethargic and his whole body ached. We were calling the doctor and saying: “It wasn’t like this for us. This is different. Why isn’t he getting better?” They were perplexed. They just kept saying: “There’s a lot we don’t understand. We’re asking the same questions.”

George: This is a kid who’s the example of young and healthy. He works out all the time. He’s on all the sports teams, and now you’re watching him struggle with the stairs. We started to hear warning phrases from doctors about oxygen supply and multi-system failures. The decline was impossibly fast.

Sherry: They told me to monitor his oxygen level. I checked all the time. Late one night, something told me to go check again, and it was dropping. I called 911. I rode with him to Fairfax Inova, near where we live in Virginia, and George stayed home to look after our two younger ones. The doctors did the X-ray, and it showed some pneumonia. They said they needed to take him upstairs so he could be admitted. They told me: “I’m sorry, but you have to go home. You can’t be here as a visitor.” That was their rule because I’d had covid.

Matthew: That was the first time I felt afraid. I didn’t want to be alone. I kept asking her if she would have to leave, and she was saying: “No way. No.”

Sherry: I explained the situation to doctors, managers — I had like five different employees I was talking to. I said: “Are you kidding, me? He’s a minor. He’s really sick.” But it was their rule. They took him upstairs, and I stood there, and what was I going to do? I got in the car. I felt sick. It was wrenching. I’ll never forget that drive home. I went into the house and tried to hold it together and make sure the other kids were okay.

Timothy: After Matthew went to the hospital, the virus was in my head. My parents were trying everything to keep my sister and me safe. They would bring food on a tray, set it outside my door, and then I’d wait until they got back downstairs. I barely left my room for a week. I was still healthy at that point, but I felt like I was waiting to get it. I would blow my nose and be like: “Do I have it? Is this it?” Drinks would go down the wrong pipe, and I’d be like: “Oh no! Am I dying? Is it happening?” And then one day I couldn’t catch my breath, and I didn’t have to guess anymore.

Sherry: We took him to Inova — and it was the same thing for both boys. The doctors tried to help their lungs with supplemental oxygen, but it wasn’t enough. They tried high-flow oxygen, flipping them over on their stomachs, different drugs, and finally a ventilator to breathe for them. Matthew’s kidney was failing. He had liver problems. It was hour by hour whether they were holding through the night. At one point the doctors called and said they needed to rush Matthew to the other side of the hospital, because there was only one intervention left that might save his life. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t see him. They were saying: “We need your approval to go ahead with this.” There was a witness on the phone, and it was: “Now. Now. Now.”

It was too much, and then a week or so later we went through it again with Timothy.

Timothy: All of the sudden it felt like 50 nurses and doctors came rushing in. I couldn’t control my breathing. They were like: “Just lie back and it will be over.” I kept thinking: I need to be asleep. Fall asleep. Please, fall asleep. I could hear a million beeps and so many footsteps. That’s the last thing I remember.

Prayer rocks are seen outside the Graveson family home in Alexandria, Va. Matthew Graveson, 16, and his brother, Timothy Graveson, 15, both fell ill with covid-19 and spent more than a month in the hospital. (Photos by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Erik Osborn (doctor): We used ECMO machines for both boys, and that’s the highest form of life support we can offer. Ninety-five percent of our ECMO patients would be dead without it. The machine essentially replaces your heart and your lungs by pumping blood out of your body, oxygenating it, and then sending it back. It’s last-resort. We’re pushing the boundaries of physiology and bringing a patient to places they would never have gone on their own. You’re suspending someone in the state right before death and keeping them in that place for days or weeks so their lungs have a chance to recover.

George: The boys were in rooms 618 and 620, and we were allowed to visit for one hour a day. They were connected to these big bags of medicine, with tubes and wires running everywhere.

Sherry: It was hard to get in the car and know what you were going to see. It was hard to go there, emotionally. We would rub their hair and hold onto their hands. We would read to them, sing, pray with them, try to have a conversation. There was no reciprocation. We’d search for anything hopeful until the hour was up.

George: Sometimes I would close my eyes and hold onto the fact that at least their hands felt warm.

Sherry: I understand a lot more now about what faith is really about, which comes when you have nothing else left. I’m an organist at three churches in Alexandria, and we had daily prayer groups, people praying from over 50 countries, people sending us monetary support, food, favorite scriptures. I wrote down about 100 verses and plastered them all over the house — on the microwave, doors, TVs, mirrors. I wanted reminders everywhere. “In this world you will have tribulations, but take heart. I have overcome the world.”

Dr. Osborn: You get into thinking about that nebulous line between life and death with these patients. For Matthew, I remember days when we would bring down his medication and try to wake him up to see how he was doing, and we got nothing. He wasn’t responding. You had no idea where his brain was, or if it was okay, or if he was still in there. We have the best medical advancements available to us, but at that point, what you’re doing is trying to stimulate the patient by grabbing their shoulder, looking into their eyes, and seeing if their eyes respond to you. This will sound unscientific, but there’s something about looking into a patient’s eyes and seeing that they’re still a living being, and maybe they recognize they’re looking at another living being, and you can see and feel their life force.

The nurses can sense that all the time. “Did he follow commands?” “No.” “Did he move his legs?” “No, but he’s there. He’s still in there.”

Matthew: I remember dreams. I was in some abandoned hospital, and I was chained to the bed. I kept fighting the chains and trying to escape. When I woke up, I couldn’t tell what was real. I saw a hospital room and a whiteboard on the wall, but the day and the month didn’t make sense. I was like: Where am I? What happened to all of May?

Timothy: Me, too. There’s a whole month that I basically don’t remember.

Sherry: That’s a good thing. Believe me.

Timothy: When I woke up, I still thought I was dreaming. Everything was pitch black. Sounds came back first. I heard beeping again, and I could feel the restraints on my arms. I couldn’t move my arms, legs, chest, anything. I didn’t believe I was back in reality until my Mom started showing me videos of my teachers and everyone praying for us. Then I was like: Okay. This must be real. This is too crazy even for a dream.

Sherry: All the pain and anguish of that month was nowhere near as intense as the joy when they came back. Matthew opened his eyes and right away he tried to bust out of his bed. He still had his trach in his neck, but he saw me, and he tried to hug me. The nurses were crying and losing it. “He knows who I am!”

George: The relief that they recognized us, and reached out for us, and made the same jokes — it was euphoria.

Sherry: The community arranged a parade when the boys came home about a month later. It was too much for them to walk, but we rode in a car behind a police escort. We had firetrucks and hundreds of people standing alongside the road holding signs and balloons. The boys were speechless.

Matthew: The support is mind-blowing, and I’m grateful. But there’s a part of me that’s still like: Why me? I was healthy. I never really got sick. Even during the quarantine, I was working out and getting stronger, and then I ended up losing like 50 pounds and waking up as, like, a skinny, weak kid. There’s a lot to rebuild.

Timothy: Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. It’s a miracle to be alive, but it would have been luckier not to get it.

George: It’s still a lot for us to process. For both boys to get sick like that?

Sherry: They’re back home. They’re getting better. I go to bed at night knowing we’re all here under the same roof. But I keep waiting for more answers. Can they get sick again? How long do they have antibodies? I asked every single doctor, and they said: “They probably have some kind of immunity, but we don’t know how long, or how much, or what happens if they get it again. It’s a novel virus. It behaves unpredictably.”

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