Nov. 25, 2020, is a day Mike Bursey will never forget. It’s the day he tested positive for COVID-19 and started a monthslong battle with the virus that doctors told him likely cut five to six years off his life.

“That was a scary part of my life,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to see my children or say goodbye to my wife.”

Bursey, 60, of St. Clair, had a severe reaction to the virus and was classified by doctors as a “long-hauler.”

He was taken by ambulance to the ICU at Mercy Hospital Washington near the height of the pandemic. Unable to see his family and surrounded by nurses in full protective gear, he described the experience as isolating, lonely and scary.

“There’s nothing worse than lying in an ICU bed, not knowing if you’re going to make it to tomorrow,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody else, not my worst enemy.”

Bursey recalled hearing doctors and nurses call “code blue,” the universal hospital code to describe a patient in critical condition, for patients near him and wondering if he was next.

“Hearing them call ‘code blue’ over the intercom was probably the most alarming saying I’ve ever dealt with,” he said. “It’s a feeling you would never want to phantom the idea of, having to think, ‘Will I ever get to say goodbye to my kid?’ ”

Bursey was in the ICU for two weeks before he was sent home. However, because the virus took a toll on his lungs, Bursey went home with an oxygen machine as he was unable to breath properly without it.

For the first three months after, Bursey was on oxygen 24/7 at the maximum setting. He is now able to be off the oxygen at times, though he said he can’t walk to the mailbox outside his house without it because the exertion is too much for his lungs. He also needs it when he’s in particularly cold or hot temperatures, and he uses it every night while he sleeps. His doctors told him this is a result of fibrosis in both of his lungs caused by COVID-19.

He said that other health issues are arising as well. The virus affected his blood sugar levels, and he developed diabetes as a result, he said. He has also started to feel pain in his legs and feet, which he hopes to get a diagnosis for at an upcoming appointment he’s scheduled with a specialist.

Bursey generally considered himself in good health prior to having COVID-19. Although, he did have a minor case of COPD, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, puts people at an increased risk for severe symptoms of the virus.

Bursey was in physical rehabilitation for two months after being discharged from the hospital but had to stop because it became too much for his legs and feet.

But the worst news Bursey received, he said, was the effect COVID-19 had on his lifespan.

“My lung doctor basically said, ‘You know, Mike, you’ve lost about five to six years of your life. Your lungs have scarred up so much just in that short time,’ ” Bursey said.

His doctor showed him X-rays of his lungs before COVID-19 and afterward, and Bursey said there was a “night-and-day” difference. His wife, Mary Bursey, said that when she heard the virus had shortened her husband’s lifespan, she was in disbelief.

“I was trying to be positive with him and say, ‘What does that mean for COVID to take five to six years off your life? How does the doctor know that?’ ” she said. “But we didn’t ask the doctor because I guess we were afraid to know.”

Mary Bursey tested positive for COVID-19 around the same time her husband did. Although her symptoms were minor, and she never went to the hospital for treatment, she had to quarantine and even without the diagnosis would have been unable to visit her husband while he was in the hospital. 

“I couldn’t imagine what he went through,” she said. “It was hard because I couldn’t be there for him.”

And at the hospital, Mary Bursey and the couple’s nine children were at the top of Mike Bursey’s mind.

“I do remember thinking, ‘Am I ever going to see my wife again? Am I ever going to hold her hand again and tell her I love her?’ ” he said.

Researchers for the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that about 10 percent of COVID-19 patients become long-haulers. They defined long-haulers as anyone who experiences COVID-19 symptoms weeks or months after their initial positive test. Some of these long-haulers experience severe symptoms like Bursey, and others experience very mild symptoms. However, there aren’t any statistics available showing what percentage of long-haulers require hospitalization.

Moving forward

Bursey said his experience with COVID-19 has caused him to rethink how he will go about the rest of his life. Due to complications from the illness, he recently resigned from his job as city inspector of St. Clair, a decision he said was extremely difficult to make.

“I’m not ready to go yet,” he said. “The hardest thing for me to digest is to know when you physically can’t do the things you’re required to do or want to do. ... My heart is in this city. My heart is with these people. I didn’t want to let go of this position.”

Bursey said his doctor told him he should use his time to focus on “quality of life” instead of “quantity of life.” An Army veteran, Mike Bursey hopes to get involved in the veterans community and spend more time with family. He said he’d also like to find a new way to serve his community.

Once he recovered and the COVID-19 vaccine became available, Mike Bursey got both doses of the Moderna vaccine and said that he will be more than happy to take a booster shot. He urges others to get vaccinated as well.

“We can’t walk around like we’re invincible,” he said, “because we’re not. Your life can change just in a matter of months, just like mine. And that’s not what I wanted. That’s why I get so upset when I talk about it. Because my life has changed way too fast, and I was not ready for it.”

Bursey hopes that telling his story will show others how serious this pandemic is and how important it is to get vaccinated, and although he wishes his story had gone differently, he ultimately feels fortunate.

“It’s not ‘poor pity me.’ I want you to understand how fortunate I am. I’m alive,” he said as he held Mary’s hand. “A lot of people don’t have the chance to be here talking right now or to be holding their wife’s hand.”