CrossFit Athlete Survives Six Days on a Ventilator

April 23, 2020 by
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Darryl Chajon laid on his hospital bed unable to breathe.

Six doctors and nurses surrounded him, sprinting frantically as they pushed him down the hall toward the ICU. One of them was on the phone to his wife Claudia Chajon.

“Honey, are you OK?” Claudia asked her husband of 25 years.

“I can’t breathe Claudia. But I’m OK. I love you,” 47-year-old Darryl replied.

The doctor interrupted: “Do you give permission to your wife to make decisions about your life?”

This was the last time the long-time CrossFit athlete, who trains at Crossfit CLE in Cleveland, Ohio, would speak to his wife for six days. His COVID-19 symptoms had become life-threatening, which meant he would be put into a medically-induced coma in the ICU to allow doctors to attempt to save his life.

The first symptoms: Darryl started to feel ill on March 24. It started with a fever and a “massive headache,” he explained.

By March 29, he was having trouble breathing, and his headaches were so bad it felt like his head was going to explode. That’s when Claudia took him to the hospital.

  • “At the time, they were only testing you (for COVID-19) if you were 61 or older and had shortness of breath,” said Darryl, who has no pre-existing conditions that might make him more susceptible to getting taken down by the virus.

Instead, he got X-rays to examine his lungs. His X-rays were clear of pneumonia, but he was told to go to a drive-through testing facility the next day to get swabbed for COVID-19. He tested positive, and his symptoms were worsening by the hour.

  • “I went back to the hospital on the 31st. My body was shutting down,” he said.

A day later, doctors found pneumonia in both of his lungs, and he was placed on oxygen and given chloroquine — a malaria drug.

  • “Every day, I watched the same scene at the hospital over and over again: Doctors and nurses running around screaming and literally running patients down the hall to ventilate them. It was miserable,” he said.
  • “It was like being in a war and watching your friends drop around you. And I couldn’t move. Not being able to move was horrible. I’m used to moving. I train three hours a day, five days a week.”
Credit: Darryl Chajon

In the first couple of days at the hospital, Darryl’s cell phone still had battery life, so he was able to talk to his wife once or twice a day. But then his phone died.

On April 3, Claudia began posting online about the experience her family was going through.

  • “All I can do is keep reminding him that he is a fighter, he is a warrior, he is a CrossFit athlete and the most determined person you will ever meet,” she wrote.
  • “I talked to him, the love of my life, right before he was sedated and he was almost relieved that finally he was going to be able to rest,” Claudia wrote a day later after Darryl was taken into the ICU.

Six Days in the ICU: Darryl was immediately put on a ventilator. Then, his kidneys began to fail and he was placed on dialysis on April 8.

When he was first admitted to the ICU, doctors reported to Claudia that the ventilator was at 100 percent capacity while his lungs were at 0 percent. But within 24 hours, his lungs had bounced back to 60 percent function, while the machine was working at 40 percent.

  • “This is almost impossible, but this is the best news we can have for you,” doctors told Claudia over the phone.
  • “I’m one lucky SOB. I’m a blessed individual, added Darryl today, exactly a week since he was released from the hospital.

Darryl considers himself lucky, but Claudia has another theory.

  • “‘It’s the CrossFit,’” she said to me about how I was able to recover,” Darryl said. “And I was like, ‘You know, I think so too.’”

Down but not out: Darryl returned home on Easter Monday. Though his breathing feels pretty much 100 percent, his body is nowhere near recovered.

  • “It’s going to be a long road back,” he said.

Prior to becoming sick, Darryl was learning how to handstand walk. He could rip out pull-ups and muscle-ups and placed 1,150th in the world in the Men’s 45-49-year-old division in the 2020 CrossFit Games Open.

Since returning home, he has started to do some ROMWOD workouts at home, and some basic rehabilitation exercises prescribed by his physical therapist. He has also started to cycle lightly on his stationary bike.

  • “But let’s make it clear, I’m going at a Kindergarteners speed,” he said with a laugh.

A month after he first experienced symptoms, Darryl can’t imagine doing a pull-up, let alone a muscle-up. He feels weak and depleted and has lost 30 pounds in the last month.

  • “I was 210 (pounds) and 18 percent body fat before (COVID-19)….Yesterday, I weighed in at 180 pounds, and I’m eating the world right now. Two hundred grams of protein per day,” he said.
Credit: Darryl Chajon

Though the road back is going to be a long one — not just physically but also mentally and emotionally, as he’s already experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms — Darryl is more than ready to tackle the challenges. And although his perspective on life has changed, he’s already thinking about getting back to work to achieve his ultimate goal: The CrossFit Games.

  • “My goal has always been to go to the CrossFit Games. And I know in my heart I was getting closer. I know I can do it,” he said.
  • “The day I step onto the floor at the CrossFit Games as a masters athlete, I’m going to be the biggest winner there ever is. I don’t need to be on the podium. I just want to step on the floor.”

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