British Columbia

'I thought I would be safe,' says personal trainer who spent weeks in coma due to COVID-19

The 26-year-old mixed martial artist took multiple precautions to avoid getting sick. It wasn't enough.

The 26-year-old mixed martial artist took multiple precautions to avoid getting sick. It wasn't enough

Vincent Li, a 26-year-old personal trainer from Burnaby, spent a month in the hospital battling COVID-19. (Vincent Li)

On March 23, Vincent Li headed to the emergency room at Burnaby Hospital after days of fighting a fever that had crept into the low 40s.

Hours later, the 26-year-old was in a medically induced coma on his way to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C., one of the province's primary COVID-19 care centres. 

"I didn't have a chance to tell anybody," Li said months later in an interview with the Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation. "My mom was outside at the waiting area in the ER, and social workers called her."

X-rays revealed that water had filled Li's lungs, and his blood-oxygen level was dangerously low. 

Doctors told Li he would only be under for a few days. Instead, the personal trainer and competitive mixed martial artist woke up weeks later, his muscles severely atrophied. 

Li is the youngest COVID-positive patient to be placed on a ventilator in Royal Columbian's intensive care unit.

Though Li was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes a decade ago, he had it under control by the time he caught the novel coronavirus. Through diet and exercise, he says he went from 300 pounds to 180 pounds and was able to wean himself off insulin. 

'I never expected myself to get it. I didn't travel anywhere. I kept to myself. I stopped work two weeks beforehand,' Li said. (Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation)

"His blood levels of oxygen were ridiculously low, so he needed quite a lot of oxygen to support him," Dr. Robert Sharpe, a critical care physician at Royal Columbian Hospital, told the RCH Foundation. 

"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 says he never expected to contract the virus. He didn't travel, he kept to himself and had stopped work two weeks before he got sick. 

"I thought I would be safe," he said.

He's still not sure how he contracted the virus that causes COVID-19. And nobody who was in close contact with him in the days before he took himself to the hospital showed any signs of the illness.

Li's symptoms before hospitalization were limited to a high fever and stomach discomfort. 

When he finally woke up in mid-April, he was in a daze. 

"I felt like I was Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead," Li said, referring to the protagonist from the popular American drama who wakes from a coma to find the world overrun by zombies. 

"I wake up, everything's in lockdown, the world's gone to crap essentially."

Li left the hospital a week after waking up, but it took him a while to regain the level of fitness he maintained before he got sick.

"My lungs started feeling like they were back in my obese days where I'll take five steps and I'll get really tired," he said. 

With the help of physiotherapists at Royal Columbian, he says he's back to running for 40 minutes "without dying on the ground."

For those who feel they're immune to COVID-19 — the youngest known Canadian victim was only 27 — this kickboxing teacher urges people to look beyond themselves: "You don't have to do it for yourself, but cover up [with a mask] for the sake of others."