Jason Cobb, M.D. is a family practice physician with a wife, three young children and a busy practice at the UAMS clinic in Pine Bluff. When the Coronavirus arrived at Jefferson Regional on March 11, 2020, Dr. Cobb had patients in ICU but he never interacted personally with any of the infected. So he was surprised when he started exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and began a life and death battle with the virus.
“I knew I was very ill the night of March 19,” Dr. Cob says. “I had an extremely high fever, severe fatigue, and mild muscle aches and pains. It was far worse than any illness I had ever had before. I sort of went along in that stage until around the 26th, when I started having shortness of breath, and I knew this was going to be a different course for me.”
“I had been isolating myself in our home as much as possible,” he continues, “and I came out one morning for water or something and my wife – who is also a physician – noticed how out of breath I was and how I was struggling to even take a step. She checked my pulse-ox and it was the 80’s, and she suggested we call an ambulance.”
The Cobb’s live in Little Rock, so Dr. Cobb was transported to UAMS. “When the ambulance arrived, I was on two liters of oxygen. By the time I made it to the hospital it was increased to three. I was admitted, and by the time I got to my hospital room it was five liters. Within an hour I was being transferred to ICU because of my increasing oxygen requirements, and within a few minutes of arriving in the ICU, I was on six liters.”
Doctors said because of his deteriorating condition, he would most likely be intubated and placed on a ventilator if he required any oxygen more than six liters per minute. “I wouldn’t say I refused the ventilator, but I politely declined,” Dr. Cobb says. “I was familiar with my ICU physician and he agreed to put me on high flow oxygen instead, for which I was very grateful.” Dr. Cobb’s need for oxygen continued to increase, from eight liters a minute to 10, 12, 15, and eventually 20 liters per minute of high flow oxygen through a nasal cannula. “Even as I felt myself deteriorating,” he says, “I had faith in my physician and he was confident about the care I was receiving.”
Part of Dr. Cobb’s treatment with high-flow oxygen required him to remain mostly in a prone position, which helps expand the lung capacity and increases blood flow and oxygenation to lung tissues. “I had to stay prone for at least 20 hours a day, which I did for nine days,” he says. “There was also about a 72-hour period where I was prone constantly.”
Dr. Cobb was kept in strict isolation during his hospitalization. In fact, when physicians agreed not to intubate him, they also tried to limit his contact with all staff members. They thought the high flow oxygen might increase the aerosolization of the virus, so they took extra precautions to limit exposure.
Despite being a medical professional, Dr. Cobb struggled with the pain and fear brought on by the Coronavirus. “I spent a lot of time in meditation, focused on taking my next breath. I was terrified that my next breath would be my last one, so I just focused on each one. I was definitely scared, and most of thoughts were about my wife, Sara, not having a chance to say goodbye to my family since I didn’t get a chance to talk with them before going into isolation.”
As a physician, it was also a unique opportunity to understand how the patient feels during such an extreme illness. “So many COVID patients are overwhelmed, not just by the virus, but sometimes by secondary problems. In my case, I was overwhelmed by my immune response to the virus. The virus sort of caused an aggressive immune response which was also damaging my lungs and other parts of my body.”
Dr. Cobb began to see improvement on about day five or six. He was given experimental medication, an immune modulator that suppresses the body’s own immune reaction. “It still took several days to wean my oxygen to the point that I was stable enough to get out of the ICU, but I started to show improvement about 24 hours after taking that medication.” All in all, Dr. Cobb spent two weeks in the hospital, including ten days in ICU.
Once he was released from the hospital, Dr. Cobb was tested twice to make sure he was still negative. He spent another two weeks convalescing and was able to return to work about a month after falling ill.
Today, Dr. Cobb takes all the recommended precautions to avoid COVID-19. “I really don’t have any significant fear of contracting the virus again, because I think I probably developed some antibodies, but as a physician I feel I should lead by example, and I have a responsibility to everyone else. I also have three young children and a wife that I want to protect, so I absolutely take precautions – wearing a mask, proper handwashing, and social distancing.”
He is also living proof that young people can also become seriously ill from the virus. “At 38, I’m the youngest UAMS faculty member at UAMS South Central, and probably one of the youngest in the hospital. That’s one of the mysterious aspects of the virus – we don’t know why some people get sicker than others.”
Dr. Cobb is glad to be back at work, providing healthcare rather than receiving it. And he is extremely grateful for the support he received from the staff at Jefferson Regional. “A lot of people thought about me and prayed for me here at Jefferson Regional, so I’d really like to say thank you for all the prayers and thoughts. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve come across in the hospital who said, ‘Hey, I’ve heard about you and I’ve been thinking about you.’ It’s really touching, and it means a lot to me.”