‘I was a slab of meat they were pumping life into’
When Henry Karpik first opened his eyes after three-and-a-half weeks in an induced coma, he felt like he was chained to his hospital bed.
Machines were pumping oxygen into him, tubes were lodged deep into his nose, throat and neck and his muscles had deteriorated so much that he couldn't raise his head from his pillow.
"I was a slab of meat they were pumping life into. I didn't know it at the time, but that's what was happening. I was nearly dead," Mr Karpik told The Sunday Telegraph.
"They told me later a priest had come and read me my Last Rites. When I found that out, that I was nearly gone, I was very bloody emotional."
Mr Karpik was an active 72-year-old who exercised most days and just six months ago was treating his grandchildren to the wonders of Disneyland.
He was supposed to enjoy a cruise to New Zealand on board the Ruby Princess with his wife Sue and five travel companions and then come home to plan the next adventure.
Instead he became its seventh confirmed COVID-19 case and narrowly escaped becoming death number 22.
Mr Karpik may have "beaten" coronavirus in what doctors describe as a "medical miracle" but the virus has savaged his body and mind
In one of his dark moments, he said to his daughter Jacqueline: "I might be alive, but this is no life. I can't breathe, I can't sit, I can barely even talk. I'm struggling to even remember … How is this a 'miraculous recovery'?"
Mr Karpik has extensive organ damage throughout his body.
Doctors can't predict what will happen next, only that he faces a long, rocky road to recovery.
For the former NSW police superintendent, that means a devastating loss of independence.
"The worst thing is my weakness. I can't walk very far, I can't play golf or do a bit of gardening. I can't help around the house now, make the bed, do the dishes," he said.
"My hands won't close. They told me the nerves in my fingers will take about three years to get back to normal.
"I've never felt anything like it. You get a bit of depression, get a bit worked up, you think: 'Why me? How did it all happen'?"
Mr Karpik's cruise to New Zealand left Circular Quay on March 8. Boarding was delayed significantly but no one said anything about COVID-19.
Soon after setting sail Mr Karpik was feeling unusually lethargic.
Much of the time at ports he sat in the sun, waiting while his wife and friends went shopping and exploring.
"I was just so tired, my legs were weak. At dinner one night I was struggling to have the beer I ordered and I just excused myself, I said: 'Look, I'm just too tired, I don't know what's wrong, I'm going to bed'."
The holiday is mostly a jumble of memories for Mr Karpik.
"Sue said I was red hot, boiling, I was very, very weak, she said go down to the hospital and see what they can do. I was just so unwell, I don't remember a lot of it," he said.
Mr Karpik was told he had tested negative for COVID-19 but was suffering from influenza A.
He remembers disembarking on March 19, despite having 40C temperatures for five straight days. No immigration check, no temperature check. He travelled home to Wollongong on an 11-seater shuttle bus.
"When we got home my wife and daughter helped me … apparently I fell to my knees, they helped me into the bedroom and at some point Sue took me down to Wollongong Hospital to be tested for COVID."
Mr Karpik was so unwell he didn't tell hospital staff he had just disembarked from the Ruby Princess. He was sent home. Less than 48 hours later paramedics rushed him back to hospital. He was breathing but not conscious.
"I can remember the paramedics putting me on the stretcher and getting to the doors of the emergency ward - that was it. I was just unconscious until about mid-April," he said.
"My birthday was on the 21st so I must have started to wake up a couple of days before. On my birthday they put me in a wheelchair in ICU and the family came down … my head, I couldn't control it because I had no muscles, I had no strength."
Daughter Jacqueline paints a stark picture of that birthday, a day she would rather forget, in her journal to her dad.
"Everything is hanging … your bottom eyelids slide down into your hollow cheeks, making it look like your eyes are open, but they are not. Your lower jaw is drooping, revealing your chapped tongue and cracks as big as craters on your lips. Your arms are full of fluid, your face is covered in bed sores from the ventilator rubbing on your skin."
Mr Karpik doesn't want sympathy. He just wants his life back.
"I was laying there with the ventilators going, I could hear them say 60 per cent, 40 per cent, clip on, clip off, and I was just lying there bloody hopeless, you know.
"But I improved slowly in the ICU unit, I got my feet sort of dragging on the ground and thanks to the efforts of the physio he got me to lift my legs and walk me a little bit."
On May 1, Mr Karpik was released from ICU and transferred to the high dependency ward.
His next milestone was a move to Figtree Private Hospital.
He's had relapse after relapse. He's stopped breathing, undergone emergency surgery and suffered severe secondary infections. But, while the rollercoaster is far from over, he is finally home with his wife and surrounded by his four children and six grandchildren.
The future is uncertain but the former cop who protected the streets of Cabramatta, Flemington, Sutherland, Wollongong and Bowral knows how to dig deep.
"I've had some hard fights but nothing like this one, this is the worst. This one, this corona, it really knocks you," he said.
And setbacks can come at any time, in any way.
"Dad is really bad today," Jacqueline said after a visit this week.
"He's distressed. I sat with him and just let him talk. He's so confused again … saying things like: 'Jac, I didn't know I was on the Ruby Princess'."
Originally published as 'I was a slab of meat they were pumping life into'