Guest Column | Life lessons from a virus survivor [Photo]

Shafer and his two boxers Josey Raine and Jaden Raine Shafer.


I have experienced a fair share of adversity in my life; however, until October of last year, I had never stared death in the face. It was the first time I ever visited an emergency room and the first time in my life that I believed that I was going to die.

COVID-19 hit me hard and fast. One night, I attended a local board meeting wearing my mask and kept six feet apart. Two nights later, I woke up in bed so violently ill that I had to call 9-1-1 to walk and breathe. During the next five days, my body was ravaged by a virus. My fever raced up to 105.2 degrees and I developed COVID-related double pneumonia, causing me to struggle for my next breath. I was vomiting so violently and had raging diarrhea that I lost 15 pounds in a few days. I shivered with chills and experienced such extreme head and body aches, the disease did not seem to want to leave my body.

Life changes in a heartbeat. I was born in 1960 and the world has changed in unbelievable ways. As a young man in college, I felt completely invincible and, at that time, my parents seemed very old in my eyes. At times, I would look into the mirror, close my eyes, and open them to see this 60-year-old guy looking back at me. I am growing older, gracefully, and feel blessed in so many ways in my life. I hope that I may have collected some insights, kindness and, perhaps, wisdom along my journey.

In cautious ways, I feel thankful for the very virus that tried to kill me just a few months ago. It taught me to slow down, listen more and talk less, and refocus who and what is most important in my life. You are never too old to readjust life sails.

This experience has forced me to examine relationships in my life and to make difficult choices to remove toxic people from my pathway. I have spent 38 years as a counselor and professor at Franklin College. I make my living by keeping secrets and do my best to make a difference in the lives of young people. My battle with this virus only inspires me to continue walking down that road and keep fighting for the underdog. The future happiness and acceptance of all people is very important for me and I hope to leave this world a healthier and happier place for the future generations.

The first five days of my battle were the most difficult–physically and psychologically. My body was beaten down so aggressively and my mind was so traumatized that I feared and, at times, believed that I was going to die from this unrelenting virus, it was overwhelming for me to have hope and faith to survive.

But one day, I opened my eyes in the morning sun and I felt a deep peace and new hope that I was going to win this battle. I believe that we have guardian angels watching over us and when we least expect it, they show up to guide us through life’s journey. My mother is one of my guardian angels and I believe deeply that her spirit lifted me out that darkness and brought healing light and hope to a dying man.

After the virus left my body, my journey to recovery was slow and painful. My battle from COVID-19 forced me to spend way too much time alone, away from my family and friends. Suffering from headaches, constant fatigue, and psychological stress took its toll on my body and mind. Even today, I have lost most of my ability to smell and taste like I once did before the disease. I was living at home with my two boxer dogs, but they don’t talk back much. I had already been working from home for eight months when I got infected, so the feeling of isolation and deep sadness were difficult for me to negotiate.

Life is incredibly short and now I realize that kindness and generosity are key to happiness. I am a lucky guy, I get paid to do what I enjoy most in life, and support and empower those around me.

As I reflect on the past year, it is sobering to remember that I lost two close friends and a family member to this deadly virus. I encourage you to be safe and take good care of yourself until this storm has passed us.

I have uncovered one word that has risen into my consciousness during this battle, grace. Grace for others who make bad choices and treat others as less than kind, but also, grace for myself for failing to always take the high road. Take good care of yourself, life can change in a heartbeat.

John Shafer is the director of the counseling center and associate professor at Franklin College. He also maintains a private practice and consulting firm in the area, and lives contently with his dogs near downtown Franklin.

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