PHILADELPHIA — Bill Bolds knows what it’s like to fight for his life.
He’s spent 25 years working narcotics on the Philadelphia police force — the kind of work that tests even a man of Bolds’ imposing size: 6-foot-8, 300 pounds.
But in late March, Bolds was fighting something even his perilous job could not prepare him for: COVID-19. He lay in a bed too small for his frame in the intensive care unit of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The virus ravaging his lungs made every breath feel like a battle.
Bolds, 53, was one of the first Philly cops to fall ill — and among the very first COVID-19 patients admitted to HUP. He was also one of the first to go on a ventilator, the most serious intervention for COVID-19 patients.
By then, he and his wife, Linda, had read enough to know how dire the situation was. He was looking at a 20% chance of survival.
“I am not the type of guy that scares easily,” said Bolds, his once-booming baritone reduced to a whisper in recovery. “But when they said ventilator, I was very, very scared. I just did not want to go on a vent. I knew a vent was bad news.”
Bolds would lie in an induced coma for 20 days during the first anxious weeks of the pandemic, a machine doing the work his lungs no longer could.
He awoke to learn that the world had stopped when he did, with much of the city shut down in a desperate bid to slow the spread of the virus.
Yet thousands of Philadelphia police officers still report to work each day, patrolling the city during a global pandemic. City officials have declined to say how many have fallen ill.
Bolds’ story is both a reflection of the realities of the pandemic and a hopeful glimpse from the front lines, where cops strive to keep at their jobs while doctors and nurses work to keep them healthy.
Bolds finds comfort now in the idea that his battle might help others. He was one of 1,063 COVID-19 patients selected for a randomized global trial of remdesivir, the drug that now holds the most promise in treating the virus, though it does not offer immunization.
His recovery has inspired his doctors and nurses, too, who were learning to treat a deadly virus in real time. To them, in the first weeks of a pandemic, he was a sign that even the most serious cases had a chance at survival.
“When he first came in, there was so much uncertainty,” said Kristen Rock, an associate professor of anesthesia and clinical care at Penn Medicine and the attending physician in charge of Bolds’ care. “He was part of the confidence-building of this staff that we can treat people with this disease and they can live, and we can make a difference.”
It must have been the raids.
Bolds suspects he contracted the virus during a weeklong series of citywide drug sweeps in mid-March.
It was not long after that when he came home feeling feverish and achy like never before. He soon lost his sense of smell and taste. Other narcotics officers were getting sick, too.
“My unit got hit hardest first,” said Capt. Dave Merrick of the narcotics field unit.
The city has not released the number of first responders who have contracted the virus. But law enforcement sources say more than 140 have tested positive for COVID-19, including four narcotics officers besides Bolds. None of the others was hospitalized.
One officer has died from the virus: Lt. James Walker of the traffic division.
Bolds joined the force at 28. A Nike All-American basketball player at Benjamin Franklin High School, he played for the University of Hawaii and then in semipro leagues in Japan and Australia. Knee injuries ended his hoop dreams.
Bolds’ size belies his demeanor. On the job, he is respected as a quiet, steadying force — a cop who works hard to be fair, said Merrick, who was a rookie with Bolds and describes him as more like a brother.
“When they talk about Billy, they talk about a gentle giant,” Merrick said. “His record as a police officer exemplifies his faith — and his compassion toward human beings. His compassion in this job is beyond compare.”
At the Baptist Worship Center in Frankford, where Bolds serves as a deacon, they describe him the same way.
“A humble giant — very quiet, very serious,” said Pastor Millicent Hunter, adding that Bolds also serves as a member of the church security team. “He keeps our members safe,” she said.
At first, Bolds resisted the hospital. After testing positive, he self-isolated for 10 days. Then he crashed. Just breathing hurt.
“Linda put her foot down,” Bolds said. “She took me to the hospital — and it’s a good thing she did.”
The couple’s love story began on the job. They were partners. He worked rooftop surveillance; she drove the chase car. They have been married for 15 years — and have a 15-year-old daughter, Tori.
In the moments before they intubated him, a nurse FaceTimed Linda. Bill could barely breathe. A nurse had to take the phone.
“We’re going to take good care of him,” she said.
He didn’t fit in the hospital bed.
That’s what Rosa Speranza remembered thinking when a freshly intubated Bolds arrived.
By late March, the hospital’s intensive care unit had already filled with the first wave of coronavirus patients. A surgical care unit known as Rhoades 5 had been converted into a COVID ward; Bolds and another patient were the first to be placed there.
Speranza’s first patient, so tall they had to give him two hospital blankets to reach his feet, was just another surreal sight in a surreal place, she said.
Speranza is an obstetrics and gynecological intern, assigned to work a shift in the surgical care unit before the world changed and Rhoades 5 became a COVID-19 ward. Now she was on the front lines of a pandemic.
Within two days, all the empty beds around Bolds were filled.
Bolds was so sick that he qualified for an emergency trial funded by the National Institutes of Health for remdesivir, which treats severe respiratory distress. He was part of a blind trial: He still does not know whether he received the drug, though he can find out in the next few weeks, said Pablo Tebas, a professor of medicine at Penn who oversaw the trial.
Either way, Bolds started to improve, slowly.
He remembers dreaming. Vivid ones, of darkness and light. Of being chased through muddy fields. Of bright suns and lost loved ones. He felt the presence of his daughter. He felt God’s embrace.
In her messages to Linda Bolds, Speranza began offering “little glimmers of hope.”
After 20 days, doctors began weaning him off the sedatives. He squeezed nurse Eunice Asibey’s hand.
Asibey held an iPad so Linda could virtually be there. She cried as her husband’s eyes opened.
His first question, upon awakening: “Do the Sixers play tonight?”
They played his favorite gospel song — “I Trust You” — when they wheeled him off the COVID ward. (The congregation at the Baptist Worship Center had a 24-hour prayer chain set up for weeks.)
Doctors and nurses lined the hallway to applaud as their first patient headed out after lying comatose in his hospital bed for so long.
“It was a cause of celebration,” said Rock, the attending physician. “We could say we got him better.”
Like other COVID patients who were intubated for weeks, Bolds faces a long recovery — up to 18 months, his doctors say.
He lost 55 pounds. He has anxiety over sleeping; he’s afraid he won’t wake up. He’s able to walk six minutes a day now, his wife beside him.
He calls his nurses and doctors “true heroes.”
“I am very grateful,” he said in his whisper. “I am excited for what lies ahead of me.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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