PITTSBURGH – He described it like being in the grasp of a giant. Every time he tried to suck in air, an invisible fist squeezed tighter around his body, collapsing his lungs.
“There is no worse feeling than not being able to breathe when you want to. It is just terrible. No matter how hard I tried to breathe in deeply, I couldn’t do it,” said Mark Ivanisin, who earlier this year spent 52 days in the hospital fighting for his life against the COVID-19 virus and the pneumonia that followed.
Ivanisin works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District as an operations supervisor. He oversees locks and dams for navigation on the Allegheny River. He does not know exactly when or where he caught the virus. He had been taking precautions. He was fully vaccinated in March, and he continued to wear a mask indoors and distanced himself from others.
“I started feeling a little bit tired,” Ivanisin said about his early symptoms, but he thought it was because of the enduring hours he worked in response to a national crisis.
When Hurricane Ida hit in early September, Ivanisin was working 12-hour days, seven days a week. He reported to the Pittsburgh District’s emergency operations center, helping coordinate teams nationally who deployed to provide temporary power and assist the gulf region.
The work was wearing on him. Fatigue settled in. He began to feel chills. Then a fever climbed. His wife, Christan, could see the impact.
“You’re not yourself,” she told him. “There’s something wrong. Stay home.”
“I don’t think you understand,” he responded. “There are 900,000 people without electricity. I have to help.”
Even when his own body felt worn, Ivanisin put the needs of others first.
“He is dedicated to his job, and for the good of other people. I’ve known that about him forever,” Christan said.
Except something was different. He didn’t only seem tired; he wasn’t eating. That weekend, she made him a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. The next day, the food was still in the fridge, and the day after. The husband she knew had a big appetite, and he would not have left her cooking in the fridge for two days.
She made him go to an urgent care facility, and his COVID test results came back positive. Ivanisin was more worried about his wife because she was considered “high risk,” but she never contracted the virus.
The impact of the virus felt so unpredictable, they both said. Christan had a compromised immune system, while Ivanisin is an Army veteran who considered himself healthy.
He jokes that the Army issues an M16 rifle to infantry Soldiers, but because he was a combat engineer, the Army issued him both an M16 and a shovel. That shovel is a symbol of pride and hard work for engineers. Even to this day, Ivanisin believes in hard work and serving others. In the 11 years he has worked for the Pittsburgh District, he had barely used any sick leave until COVID struck.
“I always took for granted that he was strong and healthy. He could lift anything, move anything. And that’s all gone, physically, all because on his lungs,” she said.
Ivanisin was admitted into Allegheny General Hospital and was bed-ridden the whole time. They transferred him into the intensive care unit within 24 hours. His wife said the virus had come through like a tornado, causing havoc on his body, and he was left fighting in its aftermath, leaving him with pneumonia and renal damage. At the hospital, they laid him on his stomach for 18 hours a day to relieve pressure from his lungs.
His wife could not visit. She felt completely helpless to do anything for him. She waited by the phone each day for a doctor to call with an update.
“I remember one night, they told me they were able to give him a couple sips of apple juice and a cracker. As his wife who feeds him, I couldn’t wrap my head around how he was surviving on a cracker,” she recalled.
Most days she dreaded answering the phone because the news was rarely good.
“The scariest night was about 10 days into it. They called me at 1:50 in the morning and said if he didn’t turn things around, he would be put on the ventilator,” she said.
Christan never went back to sleep that night. Passing time was like moving through a fog. The details of each moment felt hazy. She felt stunned and overwhelmed. Without warning, she would break down crying in the middle of the day.
She is thankful to her family and her husband’s coworkers who offered help. Ivanisin’s supervisor, John Dilla, visited her at home and spent an hour with her just to talk and listen.
“I had a lot of support around me, and they were so sweet,” she said of Dilla and other Pittsburgh District employees who reached out, including the district commander. “They told me if I needed to talk, if I needed to scream, if I needed groceries, to let them know. They really were genuinely concerned about me and Mark.”
Ivanisin’s conditions improved slightly before they worsened. The doctors put him on the ventilator, and that is when Ivanisin became most worried. Early on when he was on oxygen, he thought he would go home within days, but his respiratory condition became more and more distressed.
“I’m not prepared,” he thought. “When you’re on the ventilator, you don’t always come off.”
The seriousness of his condition set in. He was in isolation. He had no contact with family, friends or relatives. He had no chance of saying goodbye.
Although he was sedated, when his mind climbed to a point of coherent thought, he realized one thing: “I’m scared.”
Ivanisin said the doctors called him a “one percenter,” meaning that 99 percent of patients who had been hit by COVID-19 this severely did not survive. He said his doctors credited his survival to the vaccine he received in March.
“If my immune system hadn’t already received a boost from the vaccination, I probably wouldn’t have survived. That was based on what they saw from other patients coming in. That’s probably the one thing that helped me get through this,” Ivanisin said.
When he was finally healthy enough for visitors, Christan went to the hospital to see her husband, but she did not even recognize him.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said to the man in bed who had grown a full beard and lost 57 pounds. She began to back out, thinking she had entered the wrong room.
“Hi, it’s me,” her husband responded.
“His whole face was covered in a beard. Oh my gosh. I didn’t even know (it was him),” she said later, recalling that moment.
Once the hospital released him, he spent three more weeks doing in-patient rehab for his lungs and muscles. The couple celebrated their 20-year wedding anniversary while he was in rehab. He felt bad he could not buy her dinner, flowers or a present for their two decades of marriage.
“The fact that he survived, that’s gift enough,” she said.
After nearly two months in various medical facilities, Ivanisin is finally recovering at home. He is grateful for all the medical professionals in Pittsburgh. He feels a little bit better every day, but he is still breathing with the help of oxygen. He is going to continue to work from home until he can come off oxygen. His lungs are limited – the virus and the pneumonia caused a lot of damage – but doctors told him he should expect a full recovery.
He calls the Pittsburgh medical professionals second to none, but he is equally grateful for all the prayers he received from family, friends and coworkers.
“I feel like I’m part of the Pittsburgh District family. I’m grateful for so many people who were there for me and my wife, giving me their thoughts, their support and their prayers,” Ivanisin said. “As far as the prayers go, I used every ounce of prayer that came my way. I didn’t leave anything on the table. Anybody who sent prayers, I used every bit.”