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Burnaby man put in a coma by COVID-19 just ran a half-marathon

Vince Li has come all the way back

A year ago, Burnaby’s Vince Li was struggling to stay alive in an intensive care unit due to COVID-19.

At the time, the 26-year-old was the youngest COVID-positive patient to be mechanically ventilated in Royal Columbian Hospital’s intensive care unit during the pandemic’s spring peak.

Today, he’s running – a long way.

Li just finished running a half-marathon as he makes his way back from COVID-19. Li is a personal trainer and competitive mixed-martial artist so he’s used to pushing himself to be fit.

It’s an incredible success story after what Li went through. He had been battling a fever for several days back in March 2020 when he made his way to Burnaby Hospital looking for answers.

The results of an X-ray and blood test revealed tell-tale signs of COVID-19. Doctors decided to immediately sedate, intubate, and send Li to Royal Columbian Hospital, one of the province’s primary COVID-19 sites, according to the RCH foundation.

“I didn’t have a chance to tell anybody,” Li recalls after hearing he would be placed in an induced coma. “My mom was outside at the waiting area in the ER, and social workers called her.”

“His blood levels of oxygen were ridiculously low, so he needed quite a lot of oxygen to support him,” said Dr. Robert Sharpe, a critical care physician at RCH. “His carbon dioxide levels were also quite high. It was quite difficult to blow off CO2 because his lungs were greatly inflamed from the body’s reaction to the virus. He was pretty touch and go early on.”

Li remained hospitalized for a month and remembers nothing about the first three weeks. During that time, ICU teams kept a close watch on his blood gases, made sure his organs were getting enough oxygen, and watched for signs of new infections.

Patients are often supported medically in the hopes they can fight off the virus.

“He fooled us a couple of times, where we thought he was ready to come off the ventilator,” said Sharpe. “And then we just needed to give him more time, and he turned around.”

When he regained consciousness, Li was surprised at the amount of weight and muscle he lost. It took him a while to start moving comfortably again.

“In the beginning, it was pretty rough,” he said. “I didn’t realize that being in a bed for a month, I could have so much muscle atrophy.”

While his time at Royal Columbian is hazy, Li says the care – from the doctors to the nurses and physiotherapists – stands out, as does other, simpler milestones.

“My fondest memory was getting the tubes out of my nose and eating actual food for the first time in a month,” Li said. “That felt pretty good.”

Today, he’s doing more than that and running his way to his old self.