Battling COVID-19: Filmmaker Spends Month in Hospital, Weeks in Rehab

Gordon Quinn couldn’t speak. But he desperately needed to tell his doctors something.

The 77-year-old world-renowned documentarian was finally off a ventilator, for the second time.  He had just been helped into a sitting position for the first time in weeks. But now they were talking about putting him on a ventilator for a third time. 

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“I was banging on the side of the bed, trying to communicate that I wanted a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. I didn’t want to be stuck on a ventilator indefinitely. I knew enough to know that could very well be a possibility,” Quinn said. “If I had to go through this again, I thought, ‘I’ve had a good life, I’ve done enough.’”

Quinn, founding member and artistic director of Kartemquin Films which is home to award-winning films like “Hoop Dreams” and “Minding the Gap,” was a COVID-19 patient at Northwestern Hospital. 

Hospital staff brought Quinn a letter chart and he pointed to three letters: “D”, “N” and “R”. They set up a Zoom call with his wife, Meg Gerken.

Quinn arrived at Northwestern Hospital on a cold day in mid-March desperate for a COVID-19 test, which was hard to come by anywhere in the city at that time, knowing his weakness and unshakeable flu-like symptoms weren’t good. He was taking medication for leukemia, and had bacterial pneumonia in addition to whatever else was wrong with him.

The doctor had her own message for Quinn: If there were a DNR order in place, and he had a medical problem that she could easily fix, she wouldn’t be allowed to medically intervene. Quinn calmed down and backed off.

“That’s when I thought, I want to make a short film about how hard it is to communicate when you’re intubated.  And then I said to myself, ‘OK, that’s a reason to keep living. I don’t need a DNR order right now.’”

Quinn is one of Illinois’ more than 113,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and one of Cook County’s 247 officially recovered cases,as of May 25.

The filmmaker thinks he possibly contracted the virus in Melbourne, Australia, where he was a guest at the Australian International Documentary Conference in early March.

Less than a week after returning home, his symptoms gravely concerned him. “I felt like I had a really bad flu,” he said. “My body was aching.”  

At Northwestern Hospital’s emergency room, “you couldn’t go inside. You had to wait,” Quinn recalled. “There were wheelchairs there. I was so exhausted I just took one and sat down. They took one look at me and admitted me right away.”   

Quinn tested positive for the coronavirus.

From March 17 through April 2, Quinn was on a ventilator, unable to move. “It was like I was in a kind of purgatory, this new normal, where you couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I thought, ‘Is this all there is to life?’”

And sometimes, Quinn says, he hallucinated. At one point he was sure he was laying on top of the poster for Jiayan Jenny Shi’s film “Finding Yingying,” scheduled to show at the canceled South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.  

“I thought, ‘I’m interfering with the release of the film,’” he said.

Quinn remained at Northwestern until April 14. Quinn said the care he received at Northwestern, and later at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, where he moved from simply sitting up in bed to being able to walk for blocks, was fantastic.

“I was in one of the best, top, A plus facilities,” he said. “The ICU at Northwestern has automated sliding doors. No makeshift sheet of plastic. The health disparities in this city, and this country, are huge, enormous. And that makes a huge difference in survival, and mortality.”

Quinn is back at work, supporting new releases from Kartemquin, helping Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich complete a film about pianist Norman Malone, and being the subject of a documentary by a group of former Kartemquin interns who call themselves the Red Door Collective.

“I feel good. My voice is close to normal after all the agitation in my throat from the ventilator intubation. I do lung exercises, blowing into a little device, and they have me singing through a straw,” he said. “I think I’m as good as I was before.”

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