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Nevada COVID-19 patient zero reflects one year after hospital admission

Posted at 7:47 PM, Mar 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 23:14:28-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — One year ago, Ronald Pipkins drove himself to the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas. Three days later, he was diagnosed with COVID-19, the first confirmed case in the state.

"What I remember is getting my backpack together and putting things in it because I'm thinking maybe I might stay a night," he said of the morning before he went to the hospital.

That turned out to be day one of what he calls the best and worst year of his life.

"I know that God didn't bring me back just to go back to the life I had," he said. "My old life is gone and this is anew."

A former Marine, Pipkins worked at the VA during the day and drove Lyft at night.

In October of 2019, he said he started feeling sick and went to the ER twice in January of 2020, with what was later diagnosed as a staph infection. In late February, he traveled to Seattle for a college visit for his son and when they got home, he hit a wall.

"Immediately, I started dragging," he said. "To the point where I couldn't do two push-ups. And I had no taste."

At this point last year, doctors and scientists didn't know what they know now. We didn't know how the virus was spread, which mitigation strategies worked, etc.

There was no comprehensive list of symptoms. When he was admitted to the VA, his oxygen was low. The last thing Pipkins remembers is praying with his friend.

"She said, 'God protect you and keep you and let him get well. In the name of your son Jesus amen.' I felt good when I closed my eyes even though I had an oxygen mask on," he said.

Pipkins laid in a coma for almost a month - his lungs and kidneys collapsed.

"My brother took a picture of me, the only day he saw me in visitation as I laid there. I look at that picture and I say, 'I wasn't alive but my spirit was.'"

Pipkens awoke to a new world, finding himself mentally and spiritually adrift in a burgeoning pandemic - his short-term memory shot, only able to exist in the present.

As his body healed, his mind tried to catch up.

"I remember getting out in April and driving in the van and I saw no people wearing a mask and I was thinking, 'This thing almost killed me. What is going on?'"

A year later, Pipkins is still dealing with the impact of COVID-19.

His short-term memory is slower and he has full body muscle pain and fatigue. Even with lingering symptoms, he said he's grateful to God for this new life -- one more than half a million Americans weren't so lucky to have.

"I realize that I survived this and so many have died," he said.

"So many people are never going to see their loved ones for the holidays," said Pipkins. "That I was able to be with my kids [for] Father's Day, Thanksgiving, best Christmas I ever had.

"My heart is out to the people who have lost someone," he said.