PLEASANT GROVE — At first, Rep. Jon Hawkins thought it was just a cold. At least, that's what he concluded from several negative COVID-19 tests for him and his family back in January.
But five days of taking NyQuil and drinking lemon water with honey wasn't helping his scratchy throat. And he realized something was very wrong when the short trek up the stairs from his office in the basement of his Pleasant Grove home left him winded.
So Hawkins went to an urgent care clinic, which found his oxygen levels were low. He took another COVD-19 test and went home with an oxygen tank.
But that night, at about 3 a.m., Hawkins said he woke up and told his wife, "Mary, I can't breathe."
So they went to the emergency room. There, hospital staff checked him in and looked up the results of his latest COVID-19 test. It was positive.
"So they took me back immediately, and left my wife there," Hawkins said, his voice still raspy, but improving, from weeks of having a tube down his throat to help him breathe. "And that was the last time I saw her for (over a month)."
What followed was a battle for his life — and an emotionally scarring experience for his wife and their four kids. Mary Hawkins, who could only see her husband over Facetime for weeks, didn't know if he would make it out of the hospital alive.
The Pleasant Grove Republican and his wife sat down for an interview with the Deseret News last week in his home to describe his life-threatening battle against the novel coronavirus that has gripped the world over the past year and taken the lives of now over 546,000 Americans. He discussed the emotional fallout his near-death experience left both in his household and in the Utah Legislature.
"It was an emotional roller coaster for everyone," said Mary Hawkins, who not only grappled with the mortality of her husband while he was unconscious for weeks, but navigated media requests and uncertainty if her husband, a public official, would live to cast another vote.
Jon Hawkins said he wants Utahns to understand the serious effects COVID-19 has had not only on his own body — even as a healthy 42-year-old man — but also the emotional toll its taken on his family, who felt helpless while he fought for his life.
"This is real," Jon Hawkins said.
"I get emails all the time that say, 'Oh it's a hoax, the governments trying to control us, it's not real.' And, you know, I'm fine if they want to say that to anybody else, any other representative or senator. But they can't say that to me anymore. It's real."
Asked about the April 10 expiration date for the statewide mask mandate — which is the latest date Gov. Spencer Cox said he could get from legislators who were poised to lift the mask mandate immediately — Hawkins said it's not a date he's on board with, though he also said he understood why some of his House colleagues wanted the mandate to end.
"I think April 10 is a little bit premature," he said, urging Utahns to continue wearing masks until medical professionals tell them its safe not to.
Most importantly, he urged all Utahns to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
'If we don't intubate you, you will die'
Jon Hawkins said when he first was admitted into the hospital, he didn't grasp the seriousness of his situation. Then his memories get foggy. He said he remembers feeling extremely thirsty, unable to eat or drink while an IV kept him alive. He continued to struggle to breathe even with oxygen assistance.
Then, on Jan. 18, the day before the start of the 2021 legislative session, Hawkins said he was told "if we don't intubate you, you will die."
Hawkins said that moment he was filled with dread, because he remembered when he was first told if he needed to be intubated (which entails putting a tube hooked up to a ventilator down one's throat to pump oxygen into the lungs), he'd only have a 60% chance of living.
That day, when Jon Hawkins called his wife and told her, she said tears were "streaming down his face."
"And I could tell he felt like maybe this is the last time he was going to talk to us ever again," Mary Hawkins recalled. "And I remember just hurting more than anything that he was so scared and having to do that all by himself, with none of us there to help."
In the moments before he went under anesthesia, Jon Hawkins said his mind went blank except for thinking: "This was just something I had to do in order to survive. And I don't know if I actually will. When you're facing your mortality, you just try to think, like, was I a good person?"
Then, Jon Hawkins was unconscious, and stayed unconscious for about 23 days. He said at that point, "this becomes Mary's story" because while he doesn't remember anything, she was left alone to hold her family together while she feared the worst.
For weeks, Mary Hawkins couldn't go to the hospital to visit Hawkins in person. All she could do was watch his declining condition from his online chart, which she had access to because she's a nurse.
There were days, Mary Hawkins said, when she'd wake up and dread picking up her phone.
"I'd literally just sit there for almost like 10 minutes in the morning giving myself a pep talk," she said. "'It's time to call the hospital. You can do this.' But not knowing what I was going to hear when I called ... The unknowns were just overwhelming."
Mary Hawkins said she's struggled with the anxieties of the past few months, but found support in their oldest daughter, who is 16. Jon Hawkins said their kids were "champs" through it all. And they both described gratitude for the outpouring of support from their community members and "thousands" of prayers.
"We know that there was a lot of divine intervention and the power of prayer," Mary Hawkins said.
At one point, Mary Hawkins said a nurse told her "point blank, 'Not very many of these patients come off these ventilators.' I had to tell him, 'You know, I know that's true, but I believe in the power of positivity, and I'm choosing to believe that he's going to come off this ventilator."
Finally, as she watched her husband's health like a hawk on the online portal, at times challenging doctors to make sure they were giving him exactly what he needed, Mary Hawkins said she could tell he was finally turning a corner.
On Feb. 19, Mary Hawkins' birthday, she was able to visit him in person in the hospital. But he wasn't able to talk to her until he got a valve in his tracheostomy tube.
When he got the speaking valve, Jon Hawkins said he was finally able to hear his voice for the first time in weeks. Despite the scratchiness, he said he was eager to Facetime Mary and the kids to finally speak with her.
"I said, 'Hi babe!'" he recalled.
"It was the best day," Mary Hawkins said. "All the kids were just crying ... I don't think you understand the power of communication until that's taken away. And then suddenly to be able to communicate again was just the feeling in the world to know that he's still in there, he's been through so much, but he's still there."
'Answer to prayers'
Details of Hawkins' condition were scarce during the legislative session, but his absence hung over the Legislature. At one point, lawmakers also didn't know if Hawkins would survive, House Speaker Brad Wilson told the Deseret News in an interview as the session wrapped up. He described the weeks when Hawkins was hospitalized in intensive care as a dark "low point" during the 45-day session.
But lawmakers let out a collective and teary sigh of relief when Hawkins made a surprise virtual appearance on the second-to-last day of the session from his hospital bed to cast his first vote of the session. He thanked his House colleagues for their prayers, told them he missed them, and said he was expected to be discharged to a long-term care facility to "learn how to walk and swallow and do all those basic things we take for granted."
That was March 4. By the time Hawkins shared his story with the Deseret News on Friday, he was back to walking, eating whole foods and enjoying life again with his family. He said he's still healing, though. He's still working to strengthen his lungs, using a spirometer — a breath testing device — every day to track his progress.
But thinking back on the day he was able to cast that vote, Jon Hawkins became tearful, his voice straining with emotion. He said he was touched by how much that meant to other representatives.
It was a visceral moment for everyone: an answer to prayers, but also a moment of victory in this war the entire world has been waging on COVID-19, which has caused so much suffering for the past year.
"It's a colleague getting better. It's an answer to prayers. It's a survival of this pandemic, that we've all been experiencing on one level or another," Hawkins said. "So I think it was kind of like, 'OK, finally we can start to get back to normal.'"
Hawkins said he hopes his story helps Utahns realize COVID-19 can be extremely serious, no matter your age or circumstance, based on "no rhyme or reason." And he said he also hopes it helps Utahns sympathize with those who still might be healing emotionally, whether that be from the loss of a loved one, or a traumatic time helping a loved one get better.
"It's not just a physical thing," he said. "There's a mental health component that everyone has been going through."