COVID-19 survivor, hospitalized 44 days, encourages people to ‘mask up’

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published October 20, 2020

 Eric Florka works in Royal Oak as a gas line worker for Consumers Energy after surviving his battle with COVID-19.

Eric Florka works in Royal Oak as a gas line worker for Consumers Energy after surviving his battle with COVID-19.

Photo provided by Debra Dodd

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ROYAL OAK — Ever since 48-year-old Eric Florka’s unique and life-threatening encounter with COVID-19, he has become a strong advocate for wearing facial coverings to prevent the spread of the virus.

Florka, a gas line worker for Consumers Energy in Royal Oak and a Lapeer resident, spent 44 days in the hospital, including more than a week in the intensive care unit, and had medical providers scratching their heads after he remained sick and his tests continued to come back positive for an unusually long time.

With a weeklong fever of 105 degrees and the physical inability to move, doctors and nurses feared that Florka was at death’s door. The father and husband lost 40 pounds, his appetite and sense of smell, and he required supplemental oxygen to breathe.

“I have a whole new outlook on life. I almost lost my life,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be alive today.”

Florka said he is so vocal about the importance of wearing a mask because he doesn’t want others to go through what he went through.

“Wash your hands and wear your mask,” he said. “Truly, I believe that will make this die down so fast.”

This issue, he said, is not about politics.

“I don’t care if you like Trump or don’t like Biden. Anybody can get it, whether they’re healthy or sick, and can die from it,” he said. “If you don’t want to do it for you, then do it for your family. It doesn’t matter whether someone has a preexisting condition.”

The daily average for new cases in Michigan has increased each month since June, with the total number of cases at 141,091 and the total COVID-19 deaths at 6,973, as of press time.

“It is very possible that this is the beginning of a second wave,” Michigan Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun said Oct. 13. “Over the next several weeks, it is possible we will see deaths increasing as people fight for their lives in the hospitals.”

Khaldun said the upward trend of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state, especially in the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula, is concerning. The rise in cases is speculated to be the result of social gatherings, especially as colder weather forces groups indoors.

Florka contracted COVID-19 in April. He was hospitalized for about a week, was sent home for two days, and then went back with shortness of breath. After a scary second stint in the hospital, Florka attributed his recovery to the antiviral medication remdesivir and a surprise plasma donation containing antibodies against COVID-19.

“I ended up being one of the first people in Lapeer County to get an emergency use approval from the FDA to take remdesivir,” he said. “After those doses, things really turned the corner.”

The plasma donation came from a patient who was scheduled to receive it, but ended up no longer needing it, he said. Days after receiving the plasma donation, his condition stabilized.

Florka’s infectious disease doctor at McClaren Lapeer Region Hospital, Dr. Elfatih Abter, said Florka was a memorable patient due to his rare case and upbeat attitude. Because Florka is immunocompromised with immunoglobulin deficiency, Abter said, his body did not and still cannot produce antibodies to fight the virus.

“It continued to replicate,” Abter said. “He got a really aggressive treatment and what was available for us, but he continued to be sick. Every day, he was requiring supplemental oxygen. He was not ready to go. He had very tough days in the ICU.”

Florka’s blood still has low hemoglobin levels of immunoglobulins G, M and A. His lung capacity remained subnormal.

“You can’t predict this disease,” Abter said. “Some people stay two months in the hospital. Some people may die. This is not the flu. We are still learning about it.”

Abter said he felt Florka’s recovery was due in large part to Florka’s positive attitude and willingness to follow every directive.

“Management of COVID-19 patients can be challenging for frontline health care workers and we should do our best to control COVID-19,” he said. “The advice here is for everybody to social distance and wear a mask. Just wear a mask because this is a disease, really, that someone can bring to the whole family, to parents and grandparents.”

Abter said health providers have limited options at this time to provide a solution to the virus until a vaccine becomes widely available.

“This is how we got rid of smallpox, controlled polio, measles and many other infectious diseases, by vaccines,” he said. “They can be very effective.”

Florka, back to his full-time job with Consumers Energy, said the experience changed him as a person. Now, he takes time to revel in the ability to breathe fresh air, play golf with his son, watch his daughter ice skate and have family dinners.

“I vowed when I was laid in that hospital bed for all of those days that when I got home I would discover something new each day. Do something that I have never seen, heard or smelled. I have done that every day since I have been out. I will for the rest of my life,” he said.

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