JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
Six months ago this week, he began experiencing severe shortness of breath.
He spent 17 days critically ill with COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. His last memory before being intubated was seeing his wife and daughter as he was rushed by ambulance from his home on Joint Base Andrews to the hospital.
Tech Sgt. Lloyd Tumbaga is the NCO in charge of the Exceptional Family Member Program-Medical and the Family Member Relocation Clearance Coordinator program for the 316th Medical Group at JBA’s Malcolm Grow Medical Clinics and Surgery Center. He was previously NCOIC for JBA’s Airman Medical Transition Unit, where he helped wounded warriors who were overcoming complex medical conditions, transition back to the military. Yet none of Tumbaga’s experiences in his 17 years of working in the medical field for the Air Force could have prepared him for the trauma of his battle with COVID-19.
He found out he tested positive for COVID-19 in early July 2020 and was experiencing some symptoms. After just four days the symptoms escalated to the point he felt he couldn’t breathe on his own. He was admitted to the Medical Intensive Care Unit at WRNMMC on July 8, and diagnosed with acute hypoxic respiratory failure secondary to COVID-19 pneumonia.
“I barely remember that day,” Tumbaga said. “I suffered a pulmonary embolism [which is a blood clot in the lung] and was intubated for seven days. I was in a medically-induced coma from the eighth to the 15th of July.” On July 15, he awoke to a feeding tube, a ventilator breathing machine, and other systems attached to his body. They had been keeping him alive. He was in a fog as he slowly came to understand he had been prescribed medications for pain, for the blood clots lodged on both sides of his lungs, and more. As he began to recover, his wife saw him, speaking to him through a camera on a cell phone, using the Facetime app. He hardly resembled himself. His hospital room had a revolving door as various specialty clinic representatives visited him at all hours and he had physical therapy for an hour each day.
“I had to re-learn to talk and to walk,” Tumbaga explained. “My muscles weren’t utilized. I could not raise my arms or my legs, so I needed assistance to move around. My throat is still recovering [from the intubation] today. I still have speech therapy now.” He was discharged from WRNMMC on July 24, allowed to go home with a walker.
He joined a COVID-19 survivors’ group at WRNMMC, which meets once a week to share experiences as they each recover. The group includes doctors and providers who ask questions and study their cases.
Tumbaga was the first person whom Col. Shayne Stokes, MD, 316th MDG chief of staff, knew personally in a life-threatening condition due to COVID-19. Stokes was shocked that Tumbaga became so ill, and of course worried about him. “Sgt. Tumbaga was your typical active duty Airman, healthy, wasn’t over 65, or morbidly obese, and didn’t have chronic conditions that severely increase your risk of becoming ill from this disease. While advanced age and chronic medical conditions are definitely known risk factors, there is plenty of evidence that otherwise healthy younger individuals with no risk factors can get severe disease, and we’re still learning why.”
Tumbaga returned to duty on Sept. 7, teleworking at first and now working in his office at JBA whenever he feels he is physically able to do so. He continues to experience symptoms: shortness of breath while walking from the parking lot to his office, exercise-induced breathing issues, and feeling so exhausted and physically taxed in the evening he is unable to read his daughter bed-time stories. He takes medications, and six specialists, in addition to his primary care manager, monitor his recovery progress.
He encourages Airmen to receive the COVID-19 vaccines that are becoming available at JBA. “If there was a vaccine prior and I had the option to receive it, maybe my family and I wouldn't have had to endure this preventable experience,” Tumbaga said.
Stokes, who suffered from mild COVID-19 symptoms himself for 10 days, is also strongly recommending vaccinations for everyone. “The two currently available vaccines will decrease an individual's risk by over 90 percent of having what Sgt. Tumbaga had, happen to them,” he said. Stokes noted that COVID-19 survivors may get vaccinated 90 days after receiving convalescent plasma or an antibody treatment.
Stokes got vaccinated on Dec. 30, the first day the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine was available for medical personnel and front-line first responders at JBA. According to him, the 316th MDG is prepared and able to receive both the Pfizer vaccine and more of the Moderna. Stokes feels confident about administering the vaccines to the JBA community because both have almost equal efficacy. Of the more than 73,000 people studied during two Phase Three trials, no serious safety concerns were identified with either vaccine.
“I felt privileged, and proud of our country,” Stokes, an immunologist, said. “I don't think many people understand the absolute miracle and significance of what the vaccine industry and the government under Operation Warp Speed has been able to do. Within less than a year, we've developed, produced and disseminated a vaccine. We all need to get vaccinated. [The cycles of COVID-19 spikes] could literally go on for years, without enough people being willing to accept the vaccine.”