On Edge: Veteran Paramedic Grapples With COVID’s Toll on His Lungs and Sense of Self

  • COLab is an independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition, media resource hub, and ideas lab. We serve all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability.

  • Tina is an editor, reporter and coach with the Colorado News Collaborative. She has been a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Albuquerque Tribune, but spent most of her career as a reporter and columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. Her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty has won national recognition. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She's a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.

  • Marc Piscotty is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Denver. Marc has covered everything from Super Bowls and the Winter Olympics to Columbine, the Aurora theatre shooting and the Democratic National Convention. He was also a part of the staff at the Rocky Mountain News that won two Pulitzer Prizes in breaking news photography and spent an entire year covering post-Columbine life in high school with reporter Tina Griego.

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Even now, nearly three months after COVID invaded his body, Jason McGinnis cannot stop asking himself how he contracted the virus. 

On its face, the answer seems clear: He’s a paramedic. But he was careful, thought himself well-protected, thought that if he did catch COVID, he’d knock it right down. “Up until the point I got sick, I felt invincible,” he says.

Self-assurance is in his nature. McGinnis, 51, is a self-described Type-A guy, a don’t-show-weakness hard charger. He’s been a paramedic for 30 years, nearly all of that for the Alamosa Ambulance District. Almost no one is a paramedic for 30 years. It’s a churn-and-burn profession, the work physically and emotionally taxing, though McGinnis has developed the required survival skill of compartmentalization. He speaks matter-of-factly of drug overdoses and alcohol poisonings, of car wrecks and heart attacks. He cannot count the number of lives he has helped save.

“You’re basically right in the hot zone,” he says. “It’s fast action. You have to be quick at decision-making and it’s rewarding when you make a difference … It has gotten to me at times — I’ve sucked it up and dealt with situations — but I enjoy what I do. I’m pretty well known for doing what I do. At this point in my life, I don’t know what else I would want to do.”

McGinnis got sick late last October. He’d been self-isolating because his only daughter was marrying that month and he’d narrowed his world to the job and home. So, he figures it must have been work.

Jason McGinnis has been a paramedic for 30 years, almost unheard of in his profession. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2021)

The probable answer still does not stop him from questioning. From trying to make sense of an ordeal from which he cannot seem to escape. People process trauma in different ways. Some people drink, he says, some people cry, some people cuss. And some people question.  

“I still ask myself everyday, how, where, when and what could have I have done differently.” He tells himself that if he knew for certain he could have some peace. He tells himself that in pinpointing the moment of infection, the unseen threat, he might have protected his physical health and everything that it gave him: his work, his ability to help support his family, his identity.

“It would have given me my life back if I could have avoided it,” he says. 

McGinnis nearly died of COVID-19. Memories flash: Standing in his driveway in his underwear on a 20-degree night trying to bring down a 105.3-degree fever, his wife bathing him with ice, resisting her pleas to go to the hospital because he intended, hell or high water, to walk his daughter down the aisle in just a few days. He thought he could gut it out. 

“My stubbornness nearly killed me.” His body refused to bend to his will. 

Flashes: Being zipped inside what he calls an Ebola bag, “basically a body bag with a window,” for plane transport from the San Luis Valley Hospital to a Colorado Springs hospital. Eight days in the COVID unit. Breathe, breathe, breathe, he told himself, breathe, breathe, breathe, and he was so tired. McGinnis did not want to be intubated, but his chest X-rays showed white where black should be. All white. COVID-19 pneumonia. He could not get more than one or two words out at a time. “So, I sent my wife a text and told her she would need to come up with a plan because I was a dead man.” 

If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call 1-844-493-TALK(8255)

More flashes: Laying there thinking of everything left undone, bank account numbers running through his head along with bills needing to be paid, his heart breaking because he did not get to see his daughter married and he was certain he would never meet his future grandchildren. 

The docs finally hit him with powerful steroids, he says, and he dodged the ventilator and began to recover. 

When McGinnis describes his experience now, he deploys words like “titrate,” “BIPAP,” “O2 sats,” and “high-flow oxygen,” the vocabulary of a medic talking about a patient. Language that distances him from what he has been through because as accustomed as he is to witnessing trauma, he finds it difficult to acknowledge his own. Neither is he a man for whom the words “anxiety” or “depression” come easily when speaking of himself. 

Still, he cannot compartmentalize this experience and he chokes up when he recalls his wife calling him after he texted her. “You need to fight.” She promised to buy him a Mustang and in his retelling of that call, his emotion gives way to a grin: “That’s not the reason I fought, you know, but I did. Haven’t got the Mustang yet.” He chokes up again recalling all those he loves waving signs upon his return home on Halloween. His daughter papered the garage in signs. “Out of the way, I get my daddy back today.” 

McGinnis rode that tide of jubilation for a week or two. But a hoped-for November return to work pushed into December and then into January. A recent chest X-ray showed little improvement. “That’s depressing. What do you do?”

For now, he needs to remain on oxygen. 

A nurse checks Jason McGinnis’ oxygen saturation levels during pulmonary rehab at San Luis Valley Hospital on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2020. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2021)

This suspension is intolerable for a man accustomed to motion. It is too many hours on the living room couch, watching video after video: how to build airplanes, how to fix cars, here’s some people hunting, some people fishing, some people metal detecting on a beach. He thinks and tries not to think, filling time, feeling for the contours of a life he recognizes. 

“Heck, I was a pilot,” he says. “I’m a really outgoing person. But this has been life-changing for me.”

McGinnis is having trouble sleeping and has been stress-eating. He wants clear answers where there are none and the uncertainty gnaws at him. 

“I have been going out a little more, dragging an O2 bottle around, but I don’t want my world to revolve around sitting on a couch and watching YouTube videos.”

McGinnis has started pulmonary therapy. He’s putting in treadmill time at home, though that’s slow-going. He tinkers in bursts with the 1929 Model A roadster he’s building. A work radio, basically a walkie-talkie, in his bedroom crackles out ambulance calls, keeping him connected. He is the veteran paramedic of the team. His colleagues have his back, he says. He wants to have theirs. 

He says the hospital, which manages the ambulance department, told him this week that if he can’t report to work by March, he could lose his job. McGinnis is determined to find his way back. 

This story is part of a statewide reporting project from the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. This project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal. Our intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high.