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Tucson veteran battles with aftermath of COVID-19

Tucson veteran battles with aftermath of COVID-19

U.S. Army veteran Benjamin Little, 43, relies on oxygen since recovering from COVID-19 earlier this summer. He spent about 10 days hospitalized at the Tucson VA. “I get winded just getting up to go to the bathroom,” he says.

Benjamin Little thought he was invincible.

The 43-year-old retired Army staff sergeant survived a tour to Iraq in 2007 and multiple IED blasts, which left him with a traumatic brain injury, vision loss, hearing loss and post traumatic stress disorder.

So when the pandemic began, Little said he wasn’t the least bit concerned.

“I thought, if I get sick, I’ll just take some NyQuil, drink some Theraflu and I’ll get better,” he said. “But then when I got sick and was put on life support, I’m thinking ‘How could this happen?’

“I live a healthy lifestyle. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I eat healthy. And here I am, fighting for my life.”

Little is one of 395 veterans and employees at the Tucson VA Medical Center to contract coronavirus since the pandemic began. As of Saturday, there were 14 active cases and 35 known deaths, the VA said.

After contracting the virus and quarantining at home for about a week, Little returned to the hospital on Aug. 4 and was immediately intubated.

“My chest felt really tight and my girlfriend noticed that my color had changed. She said I looked bluish,” he said. “Within a half an hour or so of going back to the hospital, I was intubated. It was so fast.”

With no underlying conditions or complications, Little was taken off the ventilator just 4 days later and was discharged from the hospital on Aug. 14. Back at home, Little is battling the aftermath and long-term impact of the virus and is still relying on oxygen to help him breathe.

“I was at a hospital for a short period of time, but I still lost between 10 and 20 pounds of muscle,” he said. “I’m not able to take care of myself right now. I’m relying on somebody else to cook for me, to bring me stuff. I get winded just getting up to go to the bathroom. I hope to one day get back to a good fitness level. But that’s such a long-term goal right now. My short-term goal is to obviously just wean myself off the oxygen and put some weight back on.”

As someone who goes to the gym multiple times a week, Little said his biggest concern is that he might have respiratory issues for the rest of his life.

“It’s scary to think that it kills people and causes long-term damage that scientists and doctors don’t even understand yet,” he said.

With a long road to recovery ahead, Little said he understands now that nobody is immune to the impact of COVID-19.

“We become complacent and we wear the mask and do all this stuff simply because we’ve been mandated to. But this virus is very real,” he said. “It doesn’t care what color you are, what age you are, how wealthy you are. It’ll attack you. And when it does, you could be in a fight for your life. Take it seriously.”

Protecting Tucson veterans

Like many other health-care facilities throughout the state, the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System has put several precautions in place to protect patients and employees. It has created additional units to increase ICU and surgical bed capacity, performed extensive testing, stocked up on personal protective equipment and limited visitors to the hospital.

To date, the VA has distributed over $21 million to the Tucson center, which helps to fund medical supplies such as ventilators, pharmaceuticals, beds and tents.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, access to rapid turnaround testing made diagnosis challenging. The symptoms and presentations for COVID-19 are very nonspecific and can be seen in many different conditions,” said Dr. John Kettelle, chief of staff at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System. “Once testing became more readily available, treatment became more of an issue regarding which therapeutic options were most effective.”

Most veterans also face different challenges and risks when it comes to COVID-19. According to Kettelle, the veteran population tends to be older with increased comorbidities — having more than one chronic diseases or condition simultaneously. Because of this, the Tucson VA has implemented additional safeguards for its nursing home residents and spinal cord injury patients, who are particularly vulnerable to infections.

The Tucson VA has also committed to caring for nonveterans as the national emergency continues. At any given time, it is able to accommodate up to 10 nonveterans to support community hospitals across Southern Arizona.

“The SAVAHCS is committed to helping our region respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jennifer Gutowski, director of the Tucson VA. “Caring for veterans is our first mission, but across Southern Arizona, we are also helping the local community.”

Employees from several different departments have come together to care for COVID-19 patients and track their recovery, Kettelle said. This is especially important, he said, as the medical community continues to learn about the virus’s long-term effects.

“This work is important as it has an impact on multiple levels. On an individual level, the unified care has helped many of the patients with severe cases of COVID-19 to recover and return home,” he said. “Additionally, we monitor patients who did not require hospitalization in their home to ensure they are recovering appropriately. ... These efforts help to prevent the spread of the virus through the general community.”

Contact Hipolito R. Corella at 573-4101 or On Twitter: @policorella

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