Brad Welshans is known for being an avid exerciser.
At 61, he looks 41 and works out about 12 hours a week. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to creep into Arkansas in March 2020, Brad wasn’t worried.
Because health professionals cautioned that people who had specific risk factors – like chronic diseases and obesity – were particularly at risk from COVID, Brad didn’t think COVID would impact him. Looking back, Brad, one of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s healthiest employees, said he was a bit “arrogant” about it.
“I felt I was way too healthy,” he said. “I thought if I got it, it would be very minimal, maybe even no symptoms, asymptomatic, and that I’d just coast through it, and that would be that.”
Circle of Friends
Brad wasn’t a fan of the mask mandate but was willing to be compliant to try to get through.
“I had an inner circle of friends that would not wear masks around each other. But in general, I would say I was probably highly compliant other than with around eight or 10 people. Now, they had their small section of friends, and we actually talked about that. Okay, I don’t wear my mask around you, and I don’t wear my mask around these other seven or eight people, and they would say the same thing. The circle got pretty big, pretty fast.”
A little cough
Brad and his group of friends were okay until September 2020, when Brad’s wife, Laura, developed an earache.
“We thought it was either a sinus or ear infection and weren’t overly concerned. She got on some antibiotics. After a couple of days, it developed into a little cough, and she started running a fever. At that point, she said, ‘I’m going to get tested.’ I still didn’t think she had COVID.”
When Laura received her positive COVID-19 test results on a Tuesday morning, Brad went to get tested that afternoon. His results came back positive.
“We jumped through all the hoops around who we’d been in contact with over the last four or five days. She reached out to a couple of really close friends. Two of them developed COVID-19.
Brad assumed his experience with COVID-19 was going to be easy.
“I was asymptomatic, no fever, nothing, but I tested positive, and I thought, well, okay, exactly what I thought was going to happen happened. This is going to be a piece of cake.”
“The sickest I’ve ever been”
Brad slept fine Tuesday night, but when he woke up Wednesday morning …
“It was horrible. I woke up the sickest I’ve ever been in my life, and it just got worse. The easiest way to describe it is probably the flu times a thousand.”
For 10 days, Brad’s head throbbed like someone was driving nails into it. His joints ached. The cough wouldn’t go away.
“There was one day where every muscle in my torso felt like it had been shredded, just because I’d been coughing and coughing and coughing.”
Brad coughed so much he developed a hernia. Laura’s symptoms were a little different and lasted longer than 10 days. She’d feel good for 24 hours and then feel horrible the next day.
“We’d think, okay, you’ve turned the corner, and then, four hours later, she’s running 103 F fever again,” Brad said. “Honestly, I think that was emotionally draining for her, thinking, ‘okay, when is this going to get over?’”
Brad swam for a few weeks between having COVID and his hernia surgery in October, but it was a slow start. “The first time I exercised after COVID, I was able to walk about 400 yards. I walked to the end of the block and back, and I was done.”
After the surgery, he tried to bounce back, but the fatigue and exhaustion hung on. “Normally, I’m swimming about an hour and a half at a time,” he said, “and my first swim back after the surgery was maybe 10 minutes.”
“I’ve lost quite a bit of physical ability,” Brad said. “I expected some soreness, but my body is not pre-COVID. My body hurts all the time. It’s not a training soreness. It’s not an overexertion or overuse problem. At this point, it’s just a constant ache. I used to joke that I was 61 and felt like I was 41, and I don’t know what 61 is supposed to feel like. I don’t know what 71 is supposed to feel like, but I joke now, I’m 61 and I feel like I’m 71.”
Feelings of guilt
What would Brad say to people who are younger and fit and don’t have any health conditions?
“I would encourage you to get the vaccine simply because … we gave (COVID) to people not realizing that we were sick, which was the worst feeling in the world. As sick as we were, we were more concerned about who we’d given it to and how sick they might get.”
“Unfortunately, one of those people got pretty sick and is suffering long-term effects. The one who didn’t … her husband’s fighting cancer. It’s just a miracle he didn’t get it,” Brad said. “I get upset thinking about how scared and nervous we were for other people more than ourselves. Worrying about other people, and did we inadvertently kill somebody? It was horrible.”
Brad paused to regain his composure. “I don’t even like thinking about it.”
When Brad and Laura first heard that vaccines would soon be available, they were excited.
“Since we’d had COVID, we knew we’d have some immunity, but we still don’t know how long that immunity lasts. We just knew we didn’t want to go through that again.”
Brad’s friends were ready to get vaccinated as well.
“All my friends that watched what I’ve gone through the past six months,” he said. ‘Tell me when I can get the vaccine.’ Even though they’re fit with no risk factors, after seeing what I went through, they were lined up waiting. I would encourage everybody to get the vaccine.”
Brad and his friends got together for a Cinco de Mayo party in May.
“It was outside, and everybody that was there was fully vaccinated. It was the best time any of us have had in the last 12 months. We wouldn’t have done it if everybody hadn’t been vaccinated. It was such a mental relief not to worry about getting together. It was a fantastic time.”
“The anxiety that I personally felt and everybody I know felt pre-vaccine, it was a lot more significant than I think a lot of us realize, and that’s gone.”
Words of advice
Brad’s advice to those who don’t want to get the vaccine is to reconsider.
“I would encourage you to get it for yourself, get it for your loved ones. I don’t want you to go through what my wife and I went through. I don’t want you to have the personal illness or the concern about who have you potentially infected and how sick they could get from this, or what kind of damage they can have long-term from this. Again, I just encourage everybody to get the vaccine, no matter how young, fit, healthy you are, get it.”
Now that the delta variant is surging in Arkansas, Brad said it’s even more vital people get vaccinated.
“It’s disheartening to see this spike in cases and heart-breaking to see and hear all the stories in the news that are far more compelling than mine…especially when the vast majority of those cases could have been avoided by getting vaccinated,” Brad said. “All these stories in the news, those individuals probably got COVID from someone they knew, whether that was a friend or family member. You don’t have to get vaccinated for yourself but please don’t be that friend or family member that infects someone you care about and they end up being a story on the news. Getting vaccinated helps protect you, maybe more importantly, it helps protect everyone you care about.”