After contracting COVID-19, young, healthy former Tyler Junior College student and band player Ray Valentin was suddenly in a medically-induced coma with tubes coming out of almost every part of his body as his mother begged for her son to live.

The then-23-year-old saxophone player’s life changed when he first felt tired and out of breath. After seeing a doctor, he was informed his oxygen levels were critically low and was admitted into the emergency room and diagnosed with pneumonia. Shortly after, he was told he was COVID-19 positive.

He didn’t know it then, but the most difficult time of his life was entirely before him.

When the pandemic broke out in the United States in March last year, Valentin and his family quarantined and followed all recommended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Valentin spent his quarantine days watching Netflix, avoiding crowds and staying home in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Although he didn’t have any previous health conditions, Valentin took the warnings seriously. He had paused college classes at TJC shortly before, but the aspiring architect knew he had plans of returning to finish his degree. The pandemic was not helpful in making that happen as soon as he planned.

Sept. 26, 2020

Valentin knew something was going on.

“I lost my sense of smell, sense of taste, I was really weak, I could hardly breathe and I felt like I was dying. I was really, really weak,” he said.

The next day, he visited a clinic to check out what was going on.

“‘Either the machine is broken, or your oxygen levels and your blood is so low. You shouldn’t be driving right now,’” were the words Valentin heard.

“At first I was like, this is dumb, I just want to go to sleep,” he said.

A phone call to his mother possibly saved his life, as she pushed him to go to the emergency room as recommended.

As he watched a football game on the TV at the emergency room, nurses came back with test results and confirmed he had pneumonia.

“They put me in the bed and they moved me. As I’m going into the hospital, I see three elevators. The middle one says, ‘Warning: This is the COVID unit.’ and in the elevator, they say, ‘Oh you also have COVID.’”

The next two weeks, Valentin was alone in his hospital room in the COVID-19 unit on the fourth floor at UT Health, surrounded by doctors and nurses in, as he described, astronaut suits. Friends or family were not allowed on that floor of the hospital, so the only form of contact Valentin had with his family was through his iPhone.

October 8, 2020

Valentin was found beside his hospital bed, collapsed and unresponsive. Medical professionals called his mother, who was in the middle of her work day.

“At the entrance, there were two nurses waiting for me,” said his mother. They called her name, Irma Valentin.

“At that moment, I felt like I was about to hit the floor,” she said. “I felt like I was dying. They grabbed me because I didn’t know what was happening.”

As she entered the fourth floor of the hospital, there was the hospital chaplain, along with doctors waiting to speak to her.

“Tell me what happened. Did my son die?”

“Don’t worry, he’s alive,” nurses said to the desperate mother.

Everything was blurry as she panicked. She even felt as if she was losing her hearing in and out.

“We had to intubate him,” she was told. “He was already leaving us, he was going to die.”

Lost and emotional, the mother was told to standby over the phone as she would now be the one making every life decision for her son. She spent the next few days waiting around outside the hospital in case she was needed or in case there were updates. She wasn’t able to be on that fourth floor by her son’s bedside, but being near the medical facility somehow consoled her.

Two days later after her son’s status had changed, Irma Valentin was notified he was being transferred to Plano to be put on dialysis and on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a process doctors described as the ultimate step to saving his life.

Later, Ray Valentin would find that only 40% of people survive after being put on ECMO. This process drained his lungs of blood, cleaned the blood, and put it back in.

Irma Valentin hadn’t seen her son in days, but she said she armed herself in bravery to go see him before he was taken in the helicopter.

“I said Lord, I need to go pray for my son. If it’s the last time I see him, I’ll surrender him to you.”

She walked into her son’s hospital room, where he was laying in a coma.

“I don’t remember falling asleep into a medically-induced coma, at all,” Ray Valentin said.

Irma Valentin felt horrible, but she said she had to pray to God to give her son up. Still with a seed of faith, still hoping for the best, she let her son know if he had to go, he could.

The earliest chance she could visit her son in Plano, she did.

Irma Valentin was not able to get close to him or much less touch him in Plano, but two of her son’s nurses convinced doctors to dress her in protective clothing so she could have a moment with her son.

She was given only two minutes.

“It was horrible to see my son the way I saw him,” she said. “His face was swollen. It’s an image of him I never thought I’d see because he had been so medicated. Tubes at every part of his body, dialysis. I had to ask for explanations because I didn’t know what the machines did.”

At this point, his kidneys were beginning to fail, and he started to form blood clots in his lungs, kidneys and legs.

Although he was in a medically-induced coma, Ray Valentin said he could hear when his mother spoke to him.

A nurse gave Irma Valentin some encouraging words.

“I know when God speaks. The nurse told me, but I know it was God. He said, ‘Your son is going back to Tyler.’ I felt such peace,” Irma Valentin said.

This changed her entire perspective and she was able to walk away with her shoulders high, confident her son was going to come back home.

Days later as Ray Valentin’s condition began to improve, doctors ran COVID-19 tests on him, which would determine if he could go back to Tyler. His tests came back negative and he was on his way back to UT Health.

November 8, 2020

The battle wasn’t over. Ray Valentin was coming out of the coma, but still heavily medicated. And when he wasn’t, he would experience withdrawals.

“I don’t remember it, but my body was in fight or flight mode. That whole week was rough, they said. I don’t remember it. I just remember the second week when I came to consciousness,” he said.

Ray Valentin said he felt as if he were a different person.

He had nightmares while in his coma that still linger. He is currently writing a book to talk about his experiences with surviving COVID-19.

“I want people to know what I saw,” he said. “I’m sure that there’s someone out there who might not even be close to having the same dreams as me, but they had their own experience of their own nightmares.{br class=”Apple-interchange-newline” /}“Me telling these things and showing people that this happened to me and what I saw looked so real, there’s going to be someone out there that’s like, ‘That happened to me, too and I’m not alone.’”

Ray Valentin finally went home on Christmas Day.

His mother said the first time he got out of the hospital, he sat in his wheelchair soaking in the sun and the fresh air.

“It was so beautiful. He sat on his chair and he just couldn’t believe it,” she said.

When he walked into his home, Irma Valentin said her son was in awe that he was home. He touched everything and admired every detail.

“He started walking around all the hallways, touching everything. It was so tender because he was as a child, touching everything,” she said.

Since recovering and getting his life back to normal, Ray Valentin has returned to work and does more on the side to pay for medical bills.

The bills are still coming in and the full amount owed still exceeds $100,000 even after government assistance. Irma Valentin said she tries her best to hide the statements when they come in so her son is not overwhelmed.

“It’s catastrophic. The other day, my son had a panic attack,” she said. “He didn’t ask to be sick. He was a healthy boy, a college student and a future engineer.”

For medical bills and monthly expenses, Ray Valentin picked up Uber and Lyft to give people rides for additional income.

In his car, he has multiple signs requesting people to wear masks. He also shares words about his story in a brief paragraph to let people know how serious the pandemic is.

“Some people really don’t take this seriously,” he said.

He became fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on June 25.

“(The vaccine) is something to protect yourself from the virus,” he said. “It’s not a cure but is to prevent someone from getting it as bad as I did. To this day, I don’t know why I got it so bad. Like I mentioned before, I had no health conditions at all. I got it so bad, I had four months of my life taken away, so when it comes to people making those comments.”

When he gives people rides, some thank him for sharing his story and leave big tips to help him pay medical bills, the biggest one being $1,000.

His mother was against it, but he said he had to make money somehow.

After physical therapy and learning how to eat, drink and walk again, Ray Valentin said he still experiences brain fog.

“This virus is not a joke. Now we have a more deadly virus out there, the Delta variant. I don’t want to get that because I don’t know if I’ll make it. I can still get it, but I feel more protected. I’m always careful, and if you feel like this would never happen to you, that’s what I thought, too, but I went through the worst four months of my life with no health conditions by the way,” he said. “For the people out there that still doubt it, think about (getting the vaccine) it’s free.”

Every day, Ray Valentin looks at the scars on his neck and arms to remind himself what he survived.

“This is real. There are people who don’t believe. My own family in Mexico doesn’t believe it. Explain to me what’s something that affects your lungs, kidneys, your heart, your mind, doctors still don’t know what they’re fighting for,” Irma Valentin said. “I saw COVID. I saw that monster face to face. I saw him attacking my son right before my eyes. Vaccines save lives. I don’t want anyone to go through this. This is not politics, this is real.”

Ray Valentin is still writing his book, “Get Well Soon,” and he recently finished designing the cover of his book with a friend’s help.

To donate to Ray’s medical bill fund: $ryval121 on CashApp, or Venmo @Ryval121, or PayPal @Ryval121.

 
 

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Bilingual Multimedia Journalist

I cover COVID-19 and health in the East Texas area for Tyler Morning Telegraph, the Longview News-Journal and Tyler Paper Español. Stephen F. Austin State University alumna. For story ideas, email me at rtorres@tylerpaper.com.