Singing again after COVID-19. Now, transplant patient needs a kidney.

Feb. 18, 2021
Singing after COVID-19. Michael Peoples lost his voice after getting COVID-19 a year ago. He's singing again now.
Michael Peoples lost his speaking and singing abilities after getting COVID-19 a year ago. He’s singing again now. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

All of his life, Michael Peoples could count on his voice.

He started singing at his church near Nashville, Tennessee when he was about 6.

In junior high, he joined the chorus and home economics classes so he could show off his voice and his flair for cooking.

“There were always girls in those classes. I’m no fool,” says Michael, now 59.

Then, he started copying another Michael.

“Michael Jackson came on the scene. And boy, I thought I was Michael Jackson. I could sing everything from low baritone to falsetto.”

Later, as the lead singer for top-40 cover bands, he did gigs throughout the South and even in the Bahamas.

Then, nearly a year ago, Michael became one of the first people in Colorado to be stricken with COVID-19.

Suddenly, he was gravely ill, voiceless and needed a ventilator to survive.

During one his darkest moments, Michael remembers doctors being with him in his hospital room at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

He could hear them, but couldn’t speak to tell them he was OK.

“I remember them saying, ‘he’s non-responsive.’ It was one of the scariest moments of my life. So, I started praying every prayer I knew: ‘The Lord will not leave me or forsake me,’ and ‘with his stripes, I am healed,’” Michael recalled.

No one could hear him, but Michael was determined to survive and one day, to speak again and sing again.

Singing after COVID-19. Michael Peoples recovered from COVID-19 and made a CD. Now he needs a kidney transplant.
Michael Peoples is eagerly awaiting a kidney transplant. He survived COVID-19 a year ago and is singing again. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Awaiting a kidney transplant that could transform his life

Michael was especially vulnerable to the scary new coronavirus when it arrived in the U.S. and in Colorado a year ago because he had pre-existing health conditions.

Michael was born with a hereditary condition called polycystic kidney disease. Back in 1999, he had to start dialysis, and he’s been on it ever since. He’s at the top of Colorado’s transplant list and is urgently awaiting an organ donation.

Living donor kidney donation: How you can help save a life

  • Who? Anyone age 18 or older who is in good health can donate a kidney.
  • How? Healthy people have two kidneys and only need one to function normally.
  • Learn more: Click here for more information on how living organ donation works or to complete a questionnaire.
  • Or call 720-848-0855 for more information.

Not a perfect match? You can still donate a kidney. Doctors can use ‘paired matches.’

  • If you’re not a perfect match for Michael or another person who needs a kidney, transplant experts can arrange “paired matches.”
  • What’s a paired match? The donor’s kidney can go to another person for whom it’s a match, while Michael could receive a kidney that works for him.
  • Experts test blood type and compatibility before moving forward with paired donations.
  • UCHealth participates in an international program that makes paired donations easier.

Why living donation works so well:

  • If the living donor is a blood relative with a genetic match, the risk of organ rejection goes down.
  • A kidney from a live donor typically works sooner and better than a kidney from a deceased donor.
  • A kidney from a live donor lasts longer.
  • Surgery necessary for kidney donation is laparoscopic and requires shorter hospital stays.

“I need a kidney,” Michael said. “People say it’s a miracle that I’ve been on dialysis this long and I have a semi-normal lifestyle. But, it’s not easy. The treatments wipe me out. It’s the most draining experience.”

Michael has pleaded with friends, relatives and people at his church to consider becoming living kidney donors for him, and he figures he’ll have to keep doing so.

“I have to ask people, ‘If you have a heart, help me prolong my life by donating a kidney.’”

Despite enduring sometimes grueling treatments three times a week and ports that fail and have to be moved around his body, Michael copes with dialysis — and life in general — with infectious positivity.

“My message is uplifting. Before COVID, I traveled. I don’t like sitting and doing nothing,” Michael said. “Yes, having kidney disease and being on dialysis is awful and horrible. It can feel like it takes half of your life away. But, I did everything with it. I traveled. I performed. It’s hectic. But, you just need to view it as a lifestyle change. Either you’re going to be successful on dialysis or you’re going to wither away.”

And, Michael, who loves being a ham, had no intention of withering away.

Until the happy day arrives when Michael receives a kidney, he’s committed to living as healthy and optimistic life as he can.

“I do everything in moderation. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink,” he said. “I have a lot of people who support me. My wife is a major contributor to my health and to keeping my spirits up.”

Dressing alike to go clubbing and to church

He and his wife, Shelia Humphrey, met back in 1997 when Michael was doing a gig on New Year’s Eve in her hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Shelia wanted to go to a different place that night, but her friends had settled on Murphy’s Lounge, where Michael was singing. Shelia didn’t pay him much attention, except to notice that Michael looked like one of her cousins and sang like him too.

But, Michael was intrigued by the woman who had the nerve to ignore him. He nabbed Shelia’s phone number and later, spent months courting her in Chattanooga, two hours from his home in Nashville.

Singing after COVID-19. Michael Peoples and his wife, Shelia, like to dress in matching outfits. Here, he wears a red suit jacket and she's in a red sweater.
Michael Peoples and his wife, Shelia, love dressing in matching outfits. During the pandemic, they have missed getting gussied up for church or to go to clubs. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

He loved how dedicated she was to her four children, her work in health care and to her church. He, on the other hand, had never settled down or had kids. He loved his day job of selling stylish men’s suits, which he loves to wear himself, and spending as much time as possible on the road, that is, until he met his future wife.

“I married Marcia Brady. Marcia married J.J. from Good Times,” Michael said with a laugh.

Shelia encouraged Michael to return to church and to put family first. He charmed her, cooked for her and she helped with his dialysis treatments.

Together, they’ve been “dy-no-mite.”

They married in 2007 and sometimes dressed up in matching outfits to go out to clubs in Nashville. Michael loved the music, Shelia the dancing.

They moved to Colorado in 2015 to live close to one of Shelia’s daughters and three of their five grandchildren.

In pre-pandemic times, Michael and Shelia also loved dressing up in similar colors to go to their church, Heritage Christian Center in Aurora, where Michael sings in the choir and Shelia welcomes people as an ambassador.

Both can’t wait to be able to worship in person again.

“I’m quite the dresser. And Shelia’s even more over the top than I am, but all of our snazzy church outfits are gathering dust,” Michael said.

Waking up in the night: ‘I can’t breathe’

A year ago, Michael had been working as a store manager and selling suits at a father-and-son shop, CCO Menswear in Aurora.

He hadn’t heard much about COVID-19 when he got sick with a fever and cough. He thought it was just a bad cold and tried to ride it out at home.

But then, Michael knew he was in trouble and woke his wife at 3 a.m. on March 23.

“Shelia, I can’t breathe,” he told her.

“He was coughing so bad,” Shelia remembered.

She called 911 and paramedics whisked Michael to University of Colorado Hospital, just a few miles north of their apartment near a golf course in Aurora.

Doctors soon learned that Michael had COVID-19. He also had pneumonia and a probable bacterial infection. For a time after Michael arrived at the hospital, he seemed to be holding his own, but then, as some COVID-19 patients do, Michael suddenly took a turn for the worse and needed to go to the ICU. Almost immediately, the team had to put him on a ventilator.

Dr. Julie Winkle, an emergency medicine and critical care specialist, was one of the people who cared for Michael in the ICU.

“All of a sudden, his blood pressure dropped. That’s pretty common if there’s an infection. And, he was due for dialysis,” said Winkle, who is also a visiting associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Dr. Julie Winkle cared for Michael Peoples and helped him sing after COVID-19.
Dr. Julie Winkle helped care for Michael Peoples in a COVID-19 ICU. Photo courtesy of Julie Winkle.

Michael’s kidney disease complicated his body’s fight against the coronavirus.

“COVID lungs like to be dry and sometimes patients who are on dialysis don’t have a way to get rid of that extra fluid,” Winkle said.

Plus, Michael arrived for help so early in the pandemic that doctors had little experience working with critically ill COVID-19 patients.

“In the beginning, everything was so unclear. We weren’t sure which treatments worked. We didn’t know yet that people benefited from getting steroids early on,” Winkle said.

Despite facing such daunting odds, Michael stunned his care team by improving relatively quickly. He was able to get extubated and leave the ventilator behind after just six days, a far shorter period than many others who needed hospitalization for COVID-19 during the first wave.

“It was remarkable,” Winkle said. “It was rare at that time that patients would be intubated for such a short time.”

Michael’s recovery gave a lift to health care workers who were often dispirited, afraid and exhausted a year ago.

“At that point, everything was so overwhelming: all the unknowns, how sick people were and not knowing what to do to make them better.

“Then Michael got better,” Winkle said. “For the staff, it was a much-needed reminder that there are people who can survive this.

“It’s so heartening to see how well he’s doing,” Winkle said.

Ventilator tubes save lives, but temporarily irritate the vocal cords

While Michael had survived, he came off the ventilator weak and unable to speak.

“I couldn’t walk. I could hear, but I couldn’t respond. I had this incredible staff that was helping me with my therapy. The nurses, the doctors were all incredible. They kept me inspired and determined to keep fighting,” Michael said.

Michael learned to move better over time, but his voice remained raspy. He could barely croak a “hello” or “I love you” to Shelia when they spoke on the phone.

Dr. Bill Niehaus is a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist who has helped hundreds of patients recover from COVID-19 since last March.

Singing again after COVID-19. Headshot of Dr. Bill Niehaus
Dr. William Niehaus says patients can lose their speaking and singing voices after needing to be on ventilators. But, experts can help them speak and sing again. Photo by UCHealth.

Because Michael got the illness so early, University of Colorado Hospital had not yet set up a designated rehabilitation unit for COVID-19 survivors, so Niehaus didn’t personally care for Michael.

But, Niehaus said it’s not uncommon for people who have to be on ventilators to lose their voices.

“The tube goes into the mouth, down the back of the throat and past the vocal cords before it goes into the trachea. The mere fact that it goes through that area can cause irritation and inflammation,” said Niehaus, who is also an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The muscles and tendons that help us speak and sing are also used to touching one another, and they can’t when a tube must stay down a person’s throat.

“What makes the sound when we talk is a thin tendon attached to some muscles. You have these membranes on both sides that normally touch each other. When the tube (from the ventilator) goes between them, it pushes them apart,” Niehaus said.

If only one is working and the other doesn’t close, the voice sounds hoarse.

Michael Peoples dressed up in a cowboy outfit.
Michael Peoples loves performing and dressing up for gigs. He’d loved to sing with a band again once some normalcy returns. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Patients recovering from COVID-19 now often spend time in dedicated rehabilitation units where Niehaus, skilled therapists, and nurses care for survivors. There, they can work with speech therapists to improve their speaking abilities.

But, Michael returned home in April. And, since COVID-19 was still so new, county health officials required him to quarantine for 21 days in a bedroom in his apartment. Shelia and granddaughters had to leave trays of food at the door.

Michael was weary and lonely, but determined nonetheless to bring his vocal cords back to life.

Singing again after COVID-19

The first step was getting his speaking voice back.

“I worked extremely hard,” he said. “Singing wasn’t even on my mind at first, but it was in my heart.

“I was on oxygen, and at first, nothing would come out. It was devastating. But eventually, my voice started coming back.”

Michael loves all genres of music. One of his favorite artists is Prince. Often, he’d put on Prince songs or tunes from the old favorites he used to sing like The Temptations, Michael Jackson and Earth Wind and Fire.

“I just tried to hum along,” he said.

Before getting COVID-19, Michael particularly loved singing in his falsetto voice, but the high notes were especially elusive.

“I could barely hit the baritones,” he said.

Michael Peoples seated in a red jacket. He was thrilled to be able to sing again after recovering from COVID-19.
Michael Peoples worked hard to get his voice back as he recovered from COVID-19. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Michael’s 21-day quarantine finally ended in the spring. He got to come out to the kitchen and living room and rejoin his family. Weeks and months passed. Michael’s full singing voice returned. And, in December, he felt inspired to write a song called “Unconditional Love.”

It’s an ode of gratitude.

“It’s to God for saving my life and to Shelia for being my wife,” Michael said.

Shelia was charmed by the song.

“I like his voice and I love that he sings from the heart,” she said.

He survived COVID-19. Now, he’s praying for a kidney.

Michael has survived some of the toughest imaginable challenges: first kidney disease, then COVID-19, then losing his voice.

“Not being able to communicate was the worst thing I could imagine. Not being able to sing again would have been horrendous,” he said.

Once the pandemic ends, he looks forward to getting gussied up and singing in church choir again and getting some musical buddies together to make a full record.

Michael Peoples with his wife, Shelia.
Shelia has helped keep Michael’s spirits up as he waits for a kidney. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

“Singing completes who I am as a person, as a songwriter, as an entertainer. I’d love to tour again.”

Michael is also eager to receive a kidney donation any day now.

“I’ve endured enough already over 21 years and I’m becoming limited in my access to dialysis. I’ve had several shunts in my body,” he said.

The dialysis treatments also can be painful.

“It’s like sticking large nails into your veins every Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Michael says.

He’d love the privilege of living a normal life with a donated kidney.

“If someone has the heart to help another person, I would be so thankful and overwhelmed to continue to live a life here on this Earth,” Michael said.

Then he grinned and added a trademark Michael sales pitch: “That kidney would eat good and have a lot of fun with Shelia.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.