By Glenn Wakai
Sarah Bolles relishes short walks around Salt Lake with her 13-year-old daughter Mia. While not a daunting feat for most, it is a miraculous activity for her. Six months ago, Bolles was in a coma at Kaiser Hospital Moanalua, one of Hawaii’s first COVID-19 victims and eventually one of it’s first survivors.
She was born in California 35 years ago, then moved to Nevada before landing up in Hawaii. At age 8, she moved to Angeles City, Philippines, near Clark Air Force Base. She spent three years there and remembers having fun at a private school and learning to speak fluent Tagalog. Bolles would eventually return to Hawaii and attend Radford High School.
She worked at Price Busters prior to landing a job at the Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange where she worked for the past 12 years. Life was comfortable.
The first signs of trouble were headaches in mid-March. Within three days, Bolles developed a fever of 104.6 degrees. She already suffered from diabetes and asthma, which made her more susceptible to contracting the COVID-19 virus.
While waiting for her COVID-19 test results, Bolles experienced shortness of breath: “I just remember that day being at home and being scared and not being able to breathe. I thought, I have to call 9-1-1.”
On Mar. 26, she was rushed to the emergency room. For three weeks, she was in a medically induced coma. Upon awakening, she recalls being fed through tubes, a multitude of injections, and an array of medications. During this ordeal, she lost 70 pounds.
As she recovered, Bolles went through a number of breathing exercises as well as physical therapy to regain her mobility. “At the time I could not walk, eat or even lift up my arms because I lost my muscle mass,” says Bolles. She wiped back tears and went on to say, “The biggest adjustment was feeling alone and secluded. I saw nurses and doctors, but no loved ones could come in. I thought about my family every day, especially my daughter. As a single mother, she was my motivation during my recovery to keep pushing.”
In addition, Bolles credits her survival to the professional staff at Kaiser and the drug Tocilizumab (a drug normally used to treat arthritis and cancer.) On May 5, six weeks after being admitted, Bolles was released from the hospital. She exited utilizing a walker. Since then she has quit smoking and eats much healthier meals.
Bolles has 80% lung function and breathing will always be a challenge. “I am forever grateful and blessed to have survived,” she says. “I will always have scarring on my lungs and suffer from emotional scars.”
She cannot get away from the daily updates on COVID-19 infection rates and death toll. With the dramatic spike in cases in August, the disease is always haunting her. “I am constantly reminded everyday as cases are rising. It brings me back to when I was in the hospital,” says Bolles who acknowledges her struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is choosing to overcome her depression by facing her fears and focusing on helping others.
Bolles utilizes social media to encourage everyone to wear masks, wash their hands frequently, and to physically distance. “Just think about the lives that you are saving when you are thinking about others and not just yourself,” she said. “We need to keep our hospital beds available for those who have other urgent health issues.”
Bolles still suffers from mobility limitations. She cannot run, but she is making great strides forward. She has volunteered to take part in UH medical research and will be doing public service announcements for the Department of Health.
“My outlook on life is different, I have a stronger faith in God. A closer bond with my daughter and family,” says Bolles. “I feel He guided me back to life, to give me a second chance to do better – both physically and mentally. To share my story, in hopes that it makes a difference in the world.”
GLENN WAKAI is a State Senator and former TV news reporter.