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Learning to Laugh Again: A Story of Survival

Published: Apr. 30, 2021 at 12:52 PM CDT|Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 10:00 AM CDT
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ODESSA, Texas (KOSA) -

Sitting upright in a Houston hospital room, the sun shining down onto his hospital bed, Andrew Capen lifted a harmonica to his lips and let out a long, deep breath. The sweet melody of “Somebody to Lean On” danced in the air while a nurse, smiling under her face mask, strummed her guitar.

An easy, simple thing Andrew’s body could have never done just a few months earlier. Not without a new pair of lungs.

For eight months, Andrew had been fighting for his life as the coronavirus destroyed both of his lungs and nearly took his life at 33 years old.

In July, he caught the virus while away from home on a work trip in Corpus Christi and very quickly went from feeling unwell in his hotel room to looking up at a hospital room ceiling barely able to breathe.

When his lungs rapidly deteriorated and collapsed under the virus, he was put on ECMO, a device that oxygenates his blood. Machines kept him stable for months before it became clear that a double lung transplant was the only thing that could save him.

“A lot of people it does happen where their lungs get a chance to rest,” Andrew said. “They give them some medicine and then their lungs should start working again. That just never happened with me.”

While Andrew’s lungs withered away, the Capen family found they had to two obstacles to beat: the coronavirus and insurance red tape.

His mother, Brenda Capen, said Andrew didn’t have insurance when he got sick and getting him on emergency Medicaid took months. In fact, Brenda said she had to call politicians all over Texas and the governor’s office until coverage finally came through for Andrew in December.

But even then, the hits kept coming.

“Every time we got something squared away, something happened,” Andrew said. “We get the insurance figured out, then I had another infection. Once we get that infection figured out, it turns out that my kidneys were failing again and I needed to go back on dialysis.”

Hope, like every shallow breath, welled up in Andrew only to escape again.

Hospital after hospital denied him a transplant.

His doctors knew he couldn’t survive without new lungs, so they told Andrew what no patient wants to hear.

“So, one of the doctors told me there was a really good chance that, like his exact words were “We’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to die,’” Andrew said as his voice began to shake, and tears formed in his eyes. “And I didn’t know how to take that, and I took it really bad.”

When it seemed Andrew was bound to die in his hospital bed sooner or later, he was tempted to give up on life just as his lungs had already given up on him.

“I didn’t want to watch TV,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk.”

All that sustained him was a simple promise to his mother.

“I made him promise me that he wouldn’t give up,” Brenda said. “He had to keep fighting. Pinky swear he was going to stand up every day. He was going to eat every day.”

So, he did.

Andrew beat an infection and kidney failure and the Capen family broadcasted his success wherever they could until good news finally made its way to the COVID ward.

The Capen family posted a touching video on Facebook showing the hospital’s hallway lined with cheering and applauding nurses smiling down at Andrew as he was wheeled out of his hospital room. He was bound for Houston Methodist Hospital where a new pair of lungs were waiting to save his life.

“It’s weird to say but it’s probably the best moment of my life just knowing you’re going to make it,” Andrew said. “And you’re not going to be like, y’know, another digit at the end of the ever-growing number of COVID deaths.”

He might have joined that statistic if not for his mother.

Houston Methodist was the last option for a lung transplant, and it almost didn’t accept Andrew’s Medicaid plan. The surgery only happened after Brenda pleaded with the governor’s office to make an exception for this surgery.

“It was absolutely unacceptable that Andrew was working this hard to stay alive and that others would give up on him and tell him well we’ll have to figure out a way to let you die most comfortably,” Brenda said. “I said no. No, he was fighting to live.”

Fighting with hundreds of people on his side.

Throughout this gut-wrenching year family, friends and strangers sent their love in Facebook posts, cards and notes pushing Andrew to make it through one more day until the battle was over.

“Nobody gave up on me,” Andrew said. “That’s how much time I needed and that’s how much time they gave me.”

After all those months in the hospital, Andrew Capen is ready to open a new chapter of his life, literally. He’s writing a book detailing his brush with the coronavirus through his eyes.

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