Fitness instructor recounts COVID experience

alex brown

The 2019 Silver Sneakers Instructor of the Year can barely complete one pushup now. Longtime fitness instructor Eliot Perez recounts COVID experience: ‘My whole life flashed before me’ Eliot Perez, a Houston native and the 2019 Silver Sneakers Instructor of the Year, was infected with COVID-19 in late June or […]

The 2019 Silver Sneakers Instructor of the Year can barely complete one pushup now.

Known for his shapely calves and strong build, Eliot Perez has lost 20 pounds — mostly muscles — since he contracted COVID-19 in early July and spent nearly four weeks, over two separate stays, in the hospital.

When he was first admitted, his symptoms were flu-like and he couldn’t catch a breath. His second hospital stay was because of blood clots that formed quickly during his illness.

The native Houstonian took the coronavirus seriously. In June, he returned to his job teaching fitness classes at the Greater YMCA of Houston, but he wore his face mask and didn’t take unnecessary risks. He lives with his 74-year-old mother and most of his students are senior citizens.

The virus found him anyway.

“I was pretty shocked when I got it. It was a Wednesday night and I was starting to feel slightly fatigued; I couldn’t do a whole class and had to leave early,” Perez said. “There’s social distancing at the gym, so I didn’t let anyone get close to me. I started to get sweaty, so I went home and showered and went straight to bed.”

He woke up the next morning, July 1, with a fever and thought, “Oh my gosh, I think I’m infected.”

On July 4 weekend, the daily state death rate was in the low 200s. More than 4,000 Texans had died from the virus, and there were more than 370,000 cases statewide. In Houston alone, the overall case count reached nearly 90,000 that weekend.

Perez needed to get tested, but finding a testing location was nearly impossible, he said. Many of the city and county sites were booked or had closed early. The soonest he could be tested was July 8; a few days later, an email notified him that he was positive for COVID-19.

At that point, his mother had left Houston for San Antonio to stay with Perez’s sister, who took her to get tested. Thankfully, his mother’s results were negative.

However, Perez health deteriorated daily, and eventually, a good friend drove him to the emergency department at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital in Humble. Due to virus protocol, Perez said he had to walk in alone while his friend stayed in the parking lot.

Once in the emergency department, he experienced a coughing attack, which prompted nurses to place him in a temporary room to get him away from everyone, he said. His vital signs worsened; every time he tried to stand, he got dizzy and couldn’t breathe.

Perez’s ability to shift the mood of a room is part of what makes him a successful fitness instructor. Between coughing attacks and vital checks, he noticed a frantic nurse.

“I asked her if I could give her some words of encouragement and a prayer,” Perez said. “I felt that if I die today, I’m going to continue to do what Eliot does to make people feel better. I’m a firm believer that being positive and optimistic can be a great healer.”

His hospital experience was equal parts excruciating and monotonous. His blood was drawn at least twice a day; he received different medications twice a day and he received a painful shot to his stomach once a day.

Then he was transferred to the intensive care unit where he was placed on a breathing machine, which he said felt like a blowing hair dryer in his face. At first, he couldn’t breathe, but he eventually found his cadence.

The worst messages he received in person or over text message: How are you feeling?

“How the f*** do you think I’m feeling?” Perez said. “I have to wear this mask, my blood is drawn twice a day and my legs are looking skinny. My muscles went first, and that’s when it hit me that this is a really serious condition. My whole life flashed before me, and it gave me a revelation.”

Perez was determined to get well because he felt that God had a bigger mission for him.

His oxygen levels improved, and he was moved to a normal room and started receiving convalescent plasma therapy.

About one week after he was admitted, Perez was discharged on July 21. He was coronavirus-free, but his troubles were nowhere near over.

Four days later, he could barely walk and one of his ankles swelled intensely. His friend again drove him to the hospital where doctors found a blood clot in his right leg and more around his lungs.

Perez’s final diagnosis included COVID-19, acute respiratory failure with hypoxia, rhabdomyolysis, pulmonary embolisms, sepsis and Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

“I’m blessed to be alive, but I went through a shocking depression at home,” Perez said. “A friend looked at me and said it’s a miracle that I’m here, and apparently God has a mission for me.”

It will take time, and likely rehabilitation, before he can go back to teaching his seniors at the Y. But he’s using this break to help educate his followers and friends on social media even though it can be traumatizing to relive the details.

Since he doesn’t have health insurance, Perez’s continued recovery is precarious. Family, friends and students have been helping with medical costs, including a $400 inhaler and blood thinners to stave off clots.

But he’s no victim, he said. He will get back to teaching and choreographing as soon as he’s strong enough. It’s about endurance, but it’s also about grace under pressure.

“Wonder Woman is my favorite super hero because she is willing to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves,” he said. “I will watch an old episode with Lynda Carter and see the way she was graceful with everybody after she caught the bad guys. She’s a fighter, and she shows grace before and after a fight. Being graceful and showing mercy is important.”

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