SALT LAKE CITY — Thomas Kearl's 59th birthday on Jan. 11 was one to remember, and one he'd like to forget.
That was the day Kearl arrived at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray with a temperature of 103. What he didn't know at the time was that he'd spend the next 223 days in the same hospital battling COVID-19.
During his nearly 32-week stay, Kearl had to be resuscitated four times, intubated five times, and given CPR for 17 minutes.
But Kearl, who had no preexisting conditions, never lost his will to survive.
"I didn't want to die," said Kearl, fighting back tears Thursday. "I have too much to live for. I love my family, I love my children, I love my three grandkids. So I kept fighting."
During his fight against the coronavirus, Kearl would need to relearn how to walk and talk simply so he could go home again.
"It was a horrible battle, it was more pain than I’ve ever experienced," Kearl explained.
"The physical therapists, the speech pathologists, the respiratory therapists came in the room and said, 'Thom, we got to do this, you got to do this,' and he did it," said Dr. Peter Crossno, an Intermountain Healthcare critical care physician.
Kearl said he believes he contracted COVID-19 during a family reunion in Arizona last December. He said after returning home to Utah, the family learned one daughter most likely had COVID during the trip without knowing. Upon being tested the next day, 10 out of 12 family members tested positive, but Kearl did not.
Despite the negative test, Kearl still felt bad. A high temperature led him to go to the hospital on his birthday where he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection and sent home. Days later, when Kearl's temperature hit 105, he returned to the hospital where doctors told him his previous COVID test was a false-negative.
During the first 24 hours of hospitalization, medical staff was unable to keep Kearl's oxygen levels where they needed to be.
"So one of the doctors came in and said, 'Thom, we have to put you on a ventilator or you won't make it through the night,'" remembered Kearl.
Kearl said he woke up a few days later with what he called "jewelry" running down his throat and nose; the medical equipment meant to keep him alive.
"It was pretty miserable," said Kearl. "I don't recommend that jewelry."
During his first week in the hospital, Kearl said he got every kind of complication associated with COVID-19; viral and bacterial pneumonia, renal failure, and other dangerous conditions.
"223 days in the hospital is an incredibly long time," said Crossno. "It's probably the longest I've had a patient in the ICU, that I can recall."
Family and doctors told Kearl that he had coded at one point, leaving him near death. But it was in those moments that he found inspiration.
"I had some incredible spiritual experiences that I call the other side of the veil, and it gave me the courage and the strength to keep fighting."
Kearl's vitals failed after he was first removed from a ventilator, and it was then that doctors showed him two paths; one was making him comfortable and he would "pass in peace," or they could hook him up to another ventilator.
"I don't want another trach," Kearl said he told the doctors. "But I don't want to die, so if that's my only choice, let's do it!"
Kearl said he had a lot of guardian angels. Not spiritually, but in the medical personnel who cared for him.
"They saved my life and I'm grateful for them. I don't know how to save my life, but I know who does and that's where I put my trust."