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Victoria man, ‘patient 5’ at Royal Jubilee, recounts early pandemic diagnosis

As B.C. slowly puts pandemic in rear view mirror, Gordon Viberg tells his recovery story
Gordon Viberg of Victoria was Royal Jubilee Hospital’s COVID-19 patient number five in spring 2020, and one of the earliest to recover from the coronavirus after being treated in hospital. (Megan Atkins-Baker/News Staff)

It has been two years since Gordon Viberg, one of the earliest local COVID-19 patients, was treated at Royal Jubilee Hospital (RJH).

Viberg, now 77, was the fifth person at RJH to be diagnosed with COVID-19 in March 2020 following a birthday ski trip to Aspen, Colo.

Since then, he has recovered and returned to his active lifestyle, with no long-term symptoms. The avid tennis player, skier, cyclist, nomad and philanthropist said it was his fighting spirit and positive attitude that kept him alive.

“The doctors told me I was this close to death,” he said, pinching his index and thumb together with a furrowed brow – but he refused to be intubated even though his oxygen levels were frighteningly low.

“My birthday is March 13, that was a Friday, and then I got to ski all day Saturday but by Sunday all ski hills were completely shut down.”

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When he got to the Vancouver airport after a trip cut short – he realized that international travellers and Canadian travellers were in the same line – lines that are normally separate. There weren’t enough travellers to justify more than one line as the world began shutting down.

There were 10 flights that had come in from China, others from the Philippines, Japan and a charter from Nicaragua.

Doctors told Viberg it is highly likely that he contracted the disease in that lineup, as no one was masked and there were no social distancing measures in place yet.

When Viberg’s temperature spiked to over 40 degrees, his wife called an ambulance and he was carried on a stretcher to RJH on March 30, 2020 – he has no recollection of the events leading up to that.

The next thing he remembers is waking up in the intensive care unit and being told he had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

During that time Viberg had to rely on his own emotional support and will power to get through his two-week stay – it was lonely and isolating, since he couldn’t see his family. Physical symptoms left his limbs so weak he could barely walk to the bathroom and he had what felt like a weight on his chest, like a fish gasping for air above the water, he said.

After a 13-day stay in the ICU, Viberg was discharged and grateful to be going home, but even more grateful to the nurses and doctors who looked after him during such an uncertain period of time.

His recommendation to others who contract the disease is to maintain a positive mindset, to keep active and to ensure remaining up to date on vaccination.

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