The Rev. Terrance “Big T” Hughes remembers his first thought last month upon waking from his coma.
He had no clue he was in the VA hospital in Aurora where a ventilator had kept him alive for seven weeks while COVID-19 ravaged his lungs, kidneys, and heart so ferociously that doctors expected he would not survive.
But even in the fog of semi-consciousness, he could tell much had changed.
“The TV was on, showing people standing in long food lines. When I realized what I was looking at, I remember thinking we’ve not seen lines like that in the U.S. during my lifetime. I remember it hit me, this sense of disbelief.”
Big T, 56, is a Denver pastor and civil rights leader, and also a friend whose grave case of COVID and improbable recovery I’ve been chronicling since March. It was tricky writing about him while he was unconscious, wondering if he would live to read the stories and whether they’d jibe with what he was experiencing.
Our first few conversations – via Facetime since he was transferred from the VA hospital to a rehabilitation center three weeks ago – rattled me. I would interrupt to marvel, “You’re eating!,” “You’re walking!”, “You’re all there!”
But friends’ and family’s disbelief is nothing compared to Big T’s own as he has tried to register what, during his two months of unconsciousness, his body and planet endured. Besides having to relearn how to breathe, speak and move, these weeks in rehab have been a process of making sense of events, both personal and global, that would have seemed incredible pre-COVID.
As he was released from rehab and returned home Wednesday afternoon, he shared some of his thoughts.
First, he doesn’t know how he got the coronavirus. Before doctors induced his coma March 13 to put him on a ventilator, he knew there was a rumor he caught it while collecting signatures to petition onto the Democratic primary ballot for Colorado House District 7. He could, of course, just as easily have contracted it on an airplane seated behind a coughing passenger, or from a shopping cart or a quick hug with a friend. His wife, Rachel Hughes chose to fold his campaign shortly before his palliative care doctors told her they likely couldn’t resuscitate him if his heart failed, as they expected.
The statehouse candidate and co-pastor at Denver’s New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha Omega Ministries Disciples of Christ hadn’t been coughing or struggling to breathe, symptoms typical of COVID. Rather, he was admitted through the hospital’s emergency room because his heart was erratic, making even small exertions exhausting. That was March 9, when there were 17 presumptive positive COVID-19 cases in Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency a day later.
“Tell people this virus isn’t always so obvious. People need to know that,” he says.
Big T does not know how March slipped into April. Holes riddle his memories and he has no recollection of moves on and off a ventilator, Facetime words of encouragement and prayer from Rachel, the yoyo-ing from consciousness to unconsciousness, from hope to dread and back again. He doesn’t recall delusions, caused by withdrawal from heavy sedatives: that he was being held hostage, that pears were growing out of the hospital room walls.
And then came late April, with the steadying of his vital signs and strength enough to preach an impromptu Easter Sunday service to his nurses at the VA. With all the positive feedback, he figured he “was mentally all there.”
But it wasn’t until May 6, the day the VA released and transferred him to a rehabilitation center in Littleton, that he realized how long he’d been gone and how far he had yet to go.
When Big T arrived as the VA’s first COVID-19 patient, he says its intake staff and many of its doctors and nurses hadn’t started wearing face masks. Two months later, as dozens of friends and family and hundreds of VA employees lined up outside the hospital to celebrate his release, it came as a shock to see everyone – not just medical staff – covering their faces. It was a blow, as paramedics rolled him out the door, that Rachel leaned over his stretcher to embrace him, but wasn’t allowed to kiss him. And it confused him that so many loved ones had come to cheer him, yet stood back, keeping their distance.
“I’m a very hugging, touching person. It didn’t make sense that nobody rushed up to me like they usually would,” he says.
“And on the other hand, all those people, all those VA staff were overwhelming. I’m just Big T, an ordinary man who happened to get sick. I’m not a star. I’m not a celebrity. That’s not who I am. To have that kind of adulation was too much to handle. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
More rested and alert at the rehab center, and in possession of the remote control and his smart phone, he has absorbed in days what it has taken the rest of us weeks and months to comprehend.
Imagine learning thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands globally have died of a pandemic that nearly killed you.
“I have some survivor’s guilt that I was two shakes from being dead. Ok, I was one shake from being dead, and there are people after me, people I know, who didn’t make it. I’m not any more worthy than anyone else,” he says.
Imagine learning that, while you were under, “the economy collapsed, joblessness skyrocketed and people are on the brink of social disorder.” It blows his mind that there has been no school or church services, and that “everybody’s been staying home working on their computers.”
“It’s all so wild and hard for me to fathom,” he says. “There’s not a facet of life that has not shifted.”
Imagine catching up on the lingo – what it means, for example, to socially distance, flatten the curve, and howl. And hearing about a shortage of toilet paper: “Toilet paper? Really? What?”
Imagine not being able to read one week, and the next reading about the semi-trailer full of bodies in New York. Imagine being quarantined in a room alone, able to see your wife, kids and grandkids only through the window.
Imagine hearing medical experts call for prolonged use of facemasks, then hearing the president and other refuseniks balk at the idea, and needing your own experience with the virus to be heard.
“As a pastor, we’re used to being with people who are dying, laying hands on them and loving them up as they transition. We’re used to offering closure and some support,” he says. “Trust me when I say you don’t want to die from this. You die by yourself. There is no last goodbye, no last hug.”
Imagine having spent your whole career and months of a political campaign calling for food security, health equity and a broader safety net for people of color, only to wake from a coma to see them standing in food lines and disproportionately infected and dying. Imagine learning in the middle of a crisis that your legislative campaign was cut short just when the solutions you had been championing are most needed.
“I ran for a reason and have a lot of unfinished business. The challenge now is to find different ways to get it done,” he says. “I am a changed man because of this and won’t be wasting my time.”
Imagine your family, friends and congregation spent months praying for you, as well as a whole hospital staff and community and strangers who read about you in Colorado, elsewhere in the U.S. and even abroad. Imagine your doctors saying you’re “blowing past all our measures, it’s unheard of, you ain’t supposed to be snapping back so quickly.” And that people are calling your recovery some kind of miracle.
“To me, there is no question that’s what happened in Pastor Hughes’s case,” says the Rev. Reginald C. Holmes, his co-pastor and friend. “This is a man who was so close to death, I considered starting to work on his eulogy.”
Dressed in a sweatsuit and sneakers Rachel had bought for his homecoming, Big T listened to gospel music Wednesday morning as he sat in his rehab room, packed and ready for her and Holmes to pick him up. He was thinking about the work ahead of him rebuilding his lung capacity and managing a tremor that persists in his right hand. But then he noticed the coils of oxygen tubing without which he wondered as recently as two weeks ago if he would ever be able to breathe. He was incredulous, he told me, how far he has come.
If Big T had his way, he would have headed straight home to, as he says, “Kiss my wife, hug my wife, then kiss my wife again.”
But Rachel had other plans, organizing a parade of cars to escort him in the last few blocks in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. Once at their townhome, he stopped on the front walk, surrounded by friends and family and fellow clergy members, thanking them for their prayers and praising God for granting them.
“Can you believe it?” one of the Hughes’s friends said to their neighbor.
“Can’t believe it,” the neighbor answered.
“Praise be. Hallelujah,” the friend said.
They watched Big T nod to Rachel. It was time. He was tired. But he was home.