By Kellis Robinett
Tribune News Service
MANHATTAN — Andrew Smith has a message for anyone who remains skeptical about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This disease,” he said, “is an absolute monster.”
Smith spoke those words from the comfort of his own home Wednesday afternoon, but he spent the previous five days in the intensive career unit of Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Manhattan completely isolated from the outside world after he was identified as the first Riley County resident to test positive for coronavirus, or COVID-19, last week following a study abroad trip to London.
Later, it was clarified that he lives in Pottawatomie County.
While hospitalized, he was put on oxygen and treated for pneumonia and respiratory distress. They took X-rays of his chest and ran tests on seemingly every organ in his body. He wasn’t allowed visitors.
The only people who entered his room were his physician and the nurse each shift. At times, he worried he might not survive.
“It goes right at you, specifically at your lungs,” Smith said. “I already had double pneumonia by the time I got in there. The first two days, even with round-the-clock treatment, it was getting worse and worse. Then it started to get a little bit better and today I am feeling a lot better. They think I have got things turned around now. I’m glad I went in immediately. Another day or two and it might have been too late.”
Smith is a journalism professor at Kansas State who teaches a wide array of classes from video to photography to news and to sports. He previously worked a number of jobs in the professional journalism field, including as sports director and anchor for a TV station in Green Bay, Wis.
His current and former students speak highly of him for the energy and personal touch he brings to the classroom. Perhaps that same attitude helped him battle a serious illness this week.
“If you could find the definition of a glass-half-full person, he is the guy,” said Andrew Hammond, a former student of Smith’s who now works as a sports reporter at the Tacoma News Tribune. “When he was explaining everything that he was going through in Facebook videos, it took me back to when I was in his class because I could see that same kindness and positive attitude even though I’m sure he was in pain.”
Smith enjoys teaching journalism so much that he improbably says he will be back working remotely by the end of the week. He’s eager to see some of the video projects he assigned before this ordeal began.
Doctors have informed Smith there’s a good chance he will fully recover and be back at full strength by the time summer arrives. But, for now, he is taking things day by day.
He must stay quarantined for at least another two weeks.
“I am just trying to get better,” Smith said. “Hopefully by mid-summer, I will be back at full health. Nobody knows. It could well be that in one week I am right back in the hospital. It is a little bit different for everybody. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we are doing things right.”
Smith contracted the coronavirus while he was on a study-abroad trip with students in London earlier this month and immediately quarantined himself and his family when he returned to the Sunflower State.
Had he ignored his symptoms and interacted with friends or gone shopping, he suspects he could have infected 800 people living in and around Manhattan.
That leads him to another point he wants to make about the coronavirus.
“It can happen to anyone,” Smith said. “We are at the front end of this. Everyone has got to be ready. I am a very healthy 50-year old guy who took every precaution while I was on my trip, wearing gloves on the subway, washing my hands every chance I got. It still got me and it got me hard.”
Smith is happy to report his immediate family has remained in good health during the past two weeks and that he is personally on the mend. He was overjoyed to be discharged from the hospital and drive home with his wife Wednesday.
The original plan was for him to keep his medical condition private, but he decided to share his story when he noticed friends beginning to express fear in social media posts when Riley County announced it had its first positive test for coronavirus.
“They can’t be scared because of me,” Smith said. “I figured I needed to go public about it and say that we did everything right and took special precautions to make sure we didn’t make contact with anyone else.”
Much to his surprise, he was bombarded with texts, emails and phone calls from what felt like the entire community.
“I heard from people that I hadn’t heard from in 40 years,” Smith said.
Once he was in the hospital, he provided a few updates on his treatment with Facebook videos. The first received more than 50,000 views.
Had he known that many people were going to watch, Smith jokes he would have worn a nicer shirt.
“All that positive energy gave me a little less stress,” Smith said. “That was so helpful in the last five days. It was really overwhelming.”
Smith said he read every single note and comment he received through various social platforms and hopes to eventually respond to each of them.
Until then, he is encouraging friends and well-wishers to pay it forward by continuing to isolate themselves and help their neighbors. He doesn’t want anyone to keep worrying about him. His friends have helped him enough already.
“I just hope we can all be careful and take this seriously,” Smith said. “It’s not something to be cavalier about, not something to cheat on. If you’re supposed to stay in your house for a week, stay in your house for a week. We can only get through this if we do it with everyone working together.”