LAYTONSVILLE, Md. - A Montgomery County firefighter is sharing his story after nearly losing his life battling long haul COVID-19 for nine months.
In Dec of 2020, Chris Gotwols, a 24-year Montgomery County Department of Fire and Rescue Services veteran, was weeks away from being eligible for a vaccine. But before he could receive his first dose, the COVID symptoms started coming in.
"All of a sudden one morning, 5 o’clock in the morning, it went way worse," he said.
Gotwols was admitted to the hospital. He said doctors were concerned about his lungs.
"There were three or four days where I just didn’t think I was going to make it," Gotwals said. "You’re laying there. You can’t breathe. You’re by yourself. It’s a miserable way to die."
After making what he thought could be final communications with family, he stabilized and was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve. But the time at home was short-lived.
"Four or five days, maybe, and I started losing my speech," Gotwols said. "So they thought maybe I had a stroke."
He was back in the hospital in early January struggling to speak with his lungs looking even worse. After another week long stay, he was back home again, but still on oxygen, coping with a stutter and barely able to get up the steps.
"I didn’t think I would recover enough to do this job," he said.
Months passed, and Gotwols said by the summer, he decided he was ready to start trying to get back in shape – in hopes of returning to work.
"I was failing every category of my pulmonary exams. They did tests on my lungs and, even in July, I was failing them all," he said. "So I had little expectation I would make it back. But I just worked really hard, and I made it back finally."
He returned in September and since then, has had a message for co-workers.
"I think you have a duty to get vaccinated," he said.
Even in one of the most vaccinated counties in the nation, over 300 fire employees, one in five, are either unvaccinated or not sharing their status with the county.
In a job where your co-workers are more like family, Gotwols became emotional speaking about his efforts to spare others the fear and pain he experienced.
"There’s a lot of people that I care about that I don’t want to see them go through that," he said.
FOX 5 spoke to one firefighter who said it was Gotwols’ story that convinced him to get the shot.
Gotwals is speaking publicly hoping his message will reach even just one more person, in the firefighting community or beyond.