April 27, 2023

Portrait of gratitude

Adam and Tritia Espinoza with Dr. Steven Brizendine

Imagine not knowing where you are. You feel groggy and delirious, your hands are restrained, and you’re unsure if you’re alive or dead. Dreams come and go—some with the comfort of family members, others with the fear of losing everything held dear. For Adam, this was life for weeks on end. This was life with COVID-19.

As a self-described workaholic, March 2020 could not have been more inconvenient for Adam Espinoza. A business owner and lifetime artist, Adam heads a company specializing in design and animation for television logos and assets. While he sent his employees home, Adam continued to work.

“I remember hearing some things about COVID, and I was really arrogant about the whole thing,” he said. “It wasn’t going to stop me from doing anything.”

Soon, Adam fell ill. Informing his business partner of his condition, he tried to return to normal. Before long, his weakness, shortness of breath, and disorientation became impossible to ignore. His body was beginning to shut down.

Concerned by her husband’s state, Adam’s wife, Tritia, called their doctor, hoping to find a solution. Their only option was to go to the hospital.

“In the days leading up to Adam being sick, I had been hearing about COVID on the East Coast and how it was getting serious,” she said. “It never really crossed my mind that it was what could have been affecting my husband.”

Adam became one of the first COVID cases in Colorado. Upon arrival at the hospital, a team of clinicians in full hazmat gear whisked him inside. While Adam has no recollection of being admitted, Trish remembers the fear of potentially seeing her husband for the last time.

“All I wanted was to be with my husband, and they could not let me,” she said. “There is no feeling like that. Everything changed in one moment; it was so heartbreaking. I was instructed to go home and quarantine, and they would call me with updates soon.”

Adam was immediately intubated and put on a ventilator. For the next 30 days, he slipped between delirious consciousness and nightmarish dreaming.

“I couldn’t move and didn’t know where I was—I thought I was kidnapped and being held hostage. One of my first thoughts was, ‘What would John Wick (the film character) do?’ The confusion was so potent, and I wasn’t sure if I was alive or dead.”

While Adam fought to get better, his team of physicians and nurses worked around the clock to bring him back to health. One of his leading doctors was Dr. Steve Brizendine, a medical director with Sound Physicians.

Adam’s wife Tritia and daughter Marisol visited the hospital (through the window) after Adam was off the ventilator.

“Adam was one of our hospital’s “original” COVID patients; he was so young and so ill,” said Dr. Steve. “There were so many times I remember the nurses calling me to the bedside right away because he was on the brink of death, and we needed to figure out how to correct or stabilize whatever issue was happening at that moment. It was remarkable to see Adam’s resiliency.”

Dr. Steve and the team of nurses were Trish’s only window into Adam’s condition and she was determined to know everything. They gave her descriptions of how Adam was doing, explained complex medical jargon, and delivered messages from Trish and their kids while Adam was still on the ventilator.

“I called every hour, on the hour, around the clock for all 34 days Adam was in the hospital,” said Trish. “I want to recognize the nurses that welcomed my hundreds of calls. At the end of every day, Dr. Steve would call me with an update.”

The communication afforded to Trish by Dr. Steve and the nurses was invaluable. With the world shut down, the team had to be creative in their efforts to keep Adam’s family connected.

“One of my most poignant moments was realizing that because we were in the midst of this terrible pandemic, this was the first time we had done a FaceTime video conference with a family from an iPad,” Dr. Steve remembers. “Our charge nurse, in all of her PPE, held up the iPad to Adam while he was on the ventilator, unconscious, with Trish on the receiving end. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ It was something out of a movie.”

The hospital’s communication was incredible and allowed Trish to keep track of Adam’s care and status from afar. A common update she received: Adam’s relentless attempts to escape in true John Wick fashion.

While still in a delusional state, Adam wrote the lower section of this note as part of an occupational therapy exercise. His writing was entirely illegible as he attempted to write “I don’t belong here, help me escape!”

“I kept detailed notebooks of his treatments, medicines, and what happened in his day-to-day,” Trish said. “He once tried to escape about five times in one day. Dr. Steve was very kind about it, but I just kept apologizing over and over because I knew it wasn’t my Adam.”

Soon, Adam was well enough to come out of intubation and wean off the intense cocktail of depressants. It was then he began to have genuine interactions with Dr. Steve.

“In the first clear conversation I had with him, Dr. Steve asked if I remembered him putting me in an armbar during one of my attempted escapes,” Adam remembers. “I said no, but it must have been worth it. My life was saved.”

Through the hard work of his doctors and nurses, Adam survived COVID and returned home to his family.

“I was so proud of our healthcare team for getting Adam through his near-death experience,” Dr. Steve said. “He was one of so many that we poured all of our energy into saving. His success story was motivating, and we were all proud to see him leave the hospital. It was such an inspiration to get back in there and do better for all our patients no matter how difficult it may be.”

While his COVID experience was traumatic, Adam and Trish were beyond grateful for the care team that kept him alive. Searching for a way to express thanks, they began purchasing lunches for the clinicians at the hospital. For them, it never felt like enough.

As part of his recovery, Adam began to paint.

“My painting process became very healing for me. I had this idea that if I could get to know Dr. Steve and the people that cared for me, talk to them a little, I could take their face home with me,” Adam said.

“Dr. Steve puts so much into helping people daily; it must be scary and difficult. I couldn’t help but think, ‘How much love are they getting back?’ I want the people who took care of me to know how much I appreciate them. That was the energy I took when I began to paint Dr. Steve.”

Adam completed and gifted a portrait to Dr. Steve earlier this year. The thoughtfulness of his gift was felt throughout the whole of Sound.

Dr. Steve Brizendine portrait by Adam Espinoza

“When I saw the painting, my jaw dropped,” Dr. Steve said. “I was stunned by the realism; I just stared in awe and couldn’t stop thanking him.”

Adam did not paint Dr. Steve with a smile. The portrait reflects a battle-hardened expression, one of resolution and strength.

“I wanted to focus on the eyes,” Adam said. “I remember the intensity of his eyes during my time in the hospital, and I wanted my painting to capture that.”

“It is so powerful. It made me tear up. Still, when I continue to look at it, I get emotional. It was the kindest, most enduring gift I have ever received from any patient in my career,” said Dr. Steve.

Between communicating with Trish and helping him come back from the brink of death, Adam’s clinicians kept exceptional care at the center of their interactions.

“My philosophy on patient care is to treat everyone like they are a member of your family,” said Dr. Steve. “My biggest piece of advice for doctors is to communicate with patients and families. People need a physician that can connect with them on a personal level. Take the time, ask the questions, and get down on a deeper, more personal level.”

Adam’s time with COVID was grueling, but his connection with the people who cared for him defined his experience as a patient.

“Not many people can resonate with what we went through,” said Adam, “but I am thankful for everyone who helped me come out on the other side.”


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