It started with a cough. It was just a little one, but Ron Temko tended to cough sometimes, so the family wasn’t worried. By all accounts, everything was normal.
His family could never have anticipated that just a few days later, Ron would be admitted into the intensive care unit at UCSF Parnassus, where he would spend 21 days in a medically induced coma, 34 days on a ventilator and 40 days on a feeding tube. He was hospitalized for over 61 days due to COVID-19 symptoms, during which he could barely talk and had to relearn to walk and sit up by himself. He was a breath away from death.
Concurrently, Ron was being treated for Stage 5 prostate cancer, but he and his wife, Linda Temko, were highly active and avid travelers. Around mid-February, Ron and Linda, both 69, set off for an international trip — they were attending a wedding in South Africa and made a few stops in Europe before and after. At that point, they already knew about the coronavirus, and did their best to be diligent — wearing masks in the airport and on the plane, trying to social distance, wiping down every area before they sat down.
When they returned to their apartment in the Marina district of San Francisco around March 10, everyone was feeling fine — as well as all the people they’d seen abroad — so they decided to shelter in place with their daughter Perri Garner’s family: her husband, Zak, 34, and two children, Mila and Knolls, who all live in San Rafael.
It had been a lovely few days — the family went on walks over to Crissy Field and Ron got to spend time with his newborn granddaughter, who was 3 months old. But the tickle in his throat was growing. On March 16, after Perri, 33, had put the kids to sleep, she asked Ron if she could take his temperature: 100.4. They called his doctor, who told him to call the COVID-19 hotline first thing in the morning.
That night, feverish and terrified, he and Linda retreated to bed. She insisted on sleeping with him no matter what.
“I just remember him holding me all night,” Linda said.
On March 17, he tested positive at UCSF Parnassus, and the doctors decided it would be best to keep him there. They put him in a room he joyfully called the “presidential suite,” and FaceTimed his entire family to show them the view. He was wearing a special shirt that Perri had gotten him, reading: “Life is Good.”
For a little while, everything seemed to be under control, Perri said. But then the coughing got worse, and soon, Ron stopped being able to talk because doing so would trigger coughing fits. Shortly after, he called Linda to tell her the news: He was being transferred to the ICU because he needed ventilator support. He told her it was going to get a lot worse before it got better. Linda asked him if he was going to die.
“I don’t know why I asked him that,” Linda said. “But it just popped out of me.”
His voice was resolute when he told her, “No.”
At around the same time, the Garners started feeling sick. Months-old Mila spiked a fever before they even got their test results back, and dad Zak had a fever, too. Perri had muscle aches, headaches and a mild cough. Only their son, Knolls, didn’t present any symptoms.
All of them tested positive for COVID-19.
But in some ways, it was the least of her concerns. She put every inch of her energy toward doing whatever she could for her husband as the doctors had to sedate and eventually paralyze him so he could enter a medically induced coma. The situation was getting critical. But Linda was unwavering as she reminded her family of the rule: No negativity was allowed. It was their mantra.
Ron remained in the coma for three weeks, during which the family never left his virtual side — they sat with him on Zoom calls for hours, hoping that he would hear them, feel them, somehow. They played his favorite music: Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac, the Black Keys. They danced and read messages from everyone in the community who had written to them. And every day, through the pixels of the screen, they reminded him to visualize himself healthy and strong, walking out of there.
The family said that over and over, to remind him — and themselves.
The phrase was a maxim borne out of “Psycho-Cybernetics,” a motivational self-help book by Maxwell Maltz that Ron had long advocated.
“He’s a firm believer in the power of positive thinking — that what you believe you can achieve,” Linda said.
During those three weeks, Linda tried her best to block the negativity, but there were moments where it cracked. It all came to a head on Easter, April 12.
The Garners had already pushed through being sick and Linda was planning to see them, but plans changed when Perri got cold feet, worried about potentially infecting her mother.
“I had a bit of a breakdown then,” Linda said.
She got up the next morning and walked to Sausalito and back — a five-hour journey. She went over to the visitors center, had a granola bar with the pigeons and pelicans, and thought about a picture she’d taken of Ron right there, when they had first started dating. All she wanted was the chance to go back, and take another picture so they could paste them side-by-side.
On April 13, the positivity and the visualizations appeared to be paying off. The doctors started slowly waking Ron up. But then it got worse. When he woke up, he was experiencing a severe case of ICU delirium — he had no idea where he was or what the coronavirus was, didn’t remember checking himself into the hospital and was extremely anxious, which soon became a dark depression. He thought he had been abducted, and wrote disturbing messages about the FBI and guns to his family that he showed them on a piece of paper over Zoom.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to live or die,” Ron said. His legs felt like the trunks of sequoia trees and his entire left side was immobile. His right side was only operating at 30% of its capabilities. “I was a tortoise on its back. And I was sitting there thinking, ‘Is the rest of my life going to be this way?’”
They removed his ventilator on April 27 — he’d been on it for 34 days. And after a sobering conversation with a nurse, he decided to visualize himself healthy, leaving the hospital; he felt determined. It took some time — extensive physical therapy and occupational therapy — but soon he was able to sit on the edge of the bed himself, and then walk again. On May 18, Linda appeared outside of his window with a big sign for their 40th anniversary: It had lyrics from their wedding song, “Make It With You” by Bread.
She came home to a bouquet of flowers he’d ordered her: 40 red roses and two white roses, surrounded by 9 candles — for their immediate family — that Perri had arranged. Linda was characteristically impossible to surprise, but her husband had done it.
After Ron’s two months in the hospital and three weeks in a coma, his family arrived at UCSF Mount Zion, where he’d been transferred, to take him home on Wednesday. Family and friends swarmed the outside, holding up neon signs that glowed under the warm sun: “Strong like Ron” and “We’re so happy you’re home.” Linda and Perri embraced each other. Then the sliding doors opened, and he was there.
The sun shone brightly on Ron as he came out to a chorus of cheers and hollers. A flood of nurses in scrubs and doctors followed close behind, encircling him as he held his heart over his chest and cried softly.
He and Linda thrust their fists in the air at the same time. One of the nurses wiped away tears, and a physician’s glasses fogged up. Perri teared up behind her sign, which read: “What you believe you can achieve.” She told her dad that his granddaughter was here to see him, too.
Linda had tested negative for antibodies, which meant she could potentially still get sick. The night before picking him up from the hospital, she wondered how she should greet him; the doctors had told her that it wouldn’t be a good idea to hug or kiss him, and that he should remain isolated because after two months, he was still testing positive.
But the moment he got within her sight, something clicked in her and she reached over to kiss his cheek.
“I’m onto my second life,” Temko said, dropping his head back in his wheelchair to bask in the sun.
Linda stayed beside him, rubbing his back. She wasn’t leaving.
Annie Vainshtein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org