A Pilot's Covid Fight

 - December 8, 2020, 9:05 AM
Pilot Rich Pickett survived a nearly fatal bought of Coronavirus.

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

My cough was very slight. A few days later the cough worsened and my lungs started to fill. Within a week, a fever started and a Covid-19 test was ordered. My taste and smell were fine, so it couldn’t be SARS-COV-2, I thought. Testing labs were overwhelmed in March and my symptoms worsened over the next few days. I measured my blood oxygen (SPO2): 80 percent while standing and mid-80s sitting. Thirty minutes later my wife Jane dropped me off at the Kaiser Medical Center ER. I agreed to be ventilated and signed a do not resuscitate (DNR) order. I didn’t expect to survive. I texted my family my love and turned off my phone. The Covid-19 test results from the previous week wouldn’t arrive until the next day—after I was ventilated.

I thought I had been careful flying around the country teaching in jets, but obviously not enough. None of my clients were infected, however unbeknownst to me at the time, I ended up infecting my wife. 

Jane approved a clinical trial of Remdesivir for my treatment. Ten days later I awoke from a coma, on my stomach with the respirator stuck down my throat and into my lungs, and heard Ana, one of my nurses, insisting that I open my eyes. She knew from my family and others that I was a pilot, volunteered with Angel Flight West, and my passion for aviation. Ana and the other nurses and doctors were amazing and tireless. 

Once semi-upright, I motioned a desire to have the tubes pulled from my lungs. With the ventilator removed, body weight 12 percent lower, and still with double pneumonia, I developed my own physical and mental recovery regimen and started it that day.

Three days after they removed the ventilator, I told one of my doctors, Sapna Iyer, I would be out in three days. She diplomatically told me it was her decision, not mine. Having FaceTimed with Jane and my family after the tubes were removed, I worked to prove her wrong. Two days later she said she didn’t know how I did it, but I was released—a day earlier than my initial goal. I was exhausted and wondering why the hell did I suggest leaving so quickly! 

The next morning, I was rolling myself down the hall to the elevator, still with pneumonia. I left the hospital without any prescriptions or oxygen—just three physical therapy appointments. I was fortunate; many others during that time did not see their loved ones at the end of their Covid-19 hospitalizations.

My recovery was challenging, however, I was determined to gain strength quickly. I wrote a long letter to the Kaiser Board of Directors naming and thanking the many people who saved my life. In the hospital my blood panel showed an incredible immune response—some were 40 times above normal. When discharged, they were still elevated. A week later my blood tests showed everything at the low end of normal ranges. The following week I flew our Cirrus and completed a 61.58 recurrency checkride in my Eclipse. One week later I was at FlightSafety for my Part 135 Pilatus PC-12 recurrent, a month later I was in Wichita for 19 days adding a Beechcraft Premier type rating, having just renewed my first class medical.

At 66, in good physical shape, and with no pre-existing conditions, I was fortunate, while others were not. Later in the summer, the FAA requested my Covid hospitalization records and current observations. I sent them 1,055 pages for review. Having flown 300-plus hours since my quarantine ended (with a mask), three aircraft recurrents, and a new type rating, it will be interesting to see their response. Standby for my next update and the FAA’s response….