There he was, Jacob Larson, the young man who always knew he would become a singer, belting out a song in the courtyard of UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital on a sun-splashed day at the end of August.
He sang a Leon Russell tune: A Song for You.
…I love you in a place
Where there’s no space or time
I love you for my life
You’re a friend of mine
There were not that many in the crowd that day, but those who were loved hearing Larson’s soulful voice. That he was standing in the courtyard and giving the gift of singing meant the world to the nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists who had gathered.
Larson was one of the first patients — and the youngest at that time, only 21 — admitted to Longs Peak in the spring of 2020 with COVID-19. To see a man they had cared for performing was timely and uplifting for caregivers who are exhausted from a pandemic that began in the U.S. in January 2020 and has no end in sight.
Among those watching Larson’s performance was Fernando Mijares, an associate nurse manager, who cared for Larson in the intensive care unit, when COVID-19 was so new and scary.
“To see him here, having graduated — living — and knowing he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for our team … We do have purpose,” Mijares said.
Too young for COVID-19?
Back in March 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases outside of China had increased 13-fold and the number of countries affected had tripled. The World Health Organization had just declared the new coronavirus a pandemic and former President Donald Trump had declared a state of emergency in the U.S. In the mountain resort towns of Colorado, the first COVID-19 cases in the state were being reported, but it would be a few months before leaders would issue statewide mask mandates and stay-at-home orders.
The Jacob Larson Band, a 10-piece ensemble with Larson as its powerhouse vocalist, was busy recording their first album. Then Larson started having ‘bad stomach issues.’
He called his dad, John Larson, who lived in Longmont, Colorado, about an hour from Larson’s apartment in Denver. John insisted his son stay at his house while he got better. Larson went to Longmont and three days after his arrival, he went to urgent care for treatment of persistent flu-like symptoms. He was prescribed nausea medication.
“The next couple of days it became harder and harder to breathe,” Larson recalled. “On Sunday, March 22, early in the morning, we went to the ER.’’
Nurses at UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital ran a series of tests. Larson’s pulse oximeter reading was 60%, well below a healthy minimum of 90%, and his chest X-ray was also concerning. Later, test results confirmed Larson had COVID-19. He was admitted and taken to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Mijares remembered the day Larson arrived in the ICU. “Initially, we thought (this virus) was just affecting the elderly, so to see this young person go down so hard was frightening,” he said.
Larson had severe viral pneumonia. A day later, he was intubated and placed on a ventilator. Ten days later, he was taken off the ventilator, but he then had a negative reaction to his medication.
“It shot my heart rate to 160, tanked my blood pressure and caused my lungs to fail again,” Larson said. “I was reintubated for an additional three days.”
Young man recovers from COVID-19
Fourteen days after being admitted to the hospital, Larson was off the ventilator for good and recovering in a post-ICU unit. Having been bedridden for so long, he focused on strengthening his muscles and his balance for the next five days. On day 20 — April 20, 2020 — he was discharged to the home of his mother, Lynn Braun, in Longmont.
Larson used a walker but quickly regained most of his mobility within a few weeks. The next few months he continued to recover with at-home physical therapy, and multiple chest X-rays showed improved lung function. He eventually gained back his full physical strength.
Larson’s vocal cords were a different story. He had temporary damage from the tubes down his throat and he knew he’d need to deal with that if he ever was going to sing again, but it would have to wait.
“Music got put on hold — it was second to me getting well again,” Larson said. “If I’m not well mentally and physically, I knew I’d not be able to get back to singing again.”
Like his music career, his pursuit of dual degrees in music business and vocal performance from the University of Colorado Denver would have to wait, even though he was only months from earning the degrees.
Emotionally, Larson needed to address the toll COVID-19 had on him. Larson’s mother, Braun, is a psychotherapist, and she made sure mental health was at the forefront of her son’s recovery. Larson started — and continues even today — with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and intense trauma therapy.
“It is a very, very scary thing when you’re lying in a room, hardly able to breathe,” Larson said. “The idea that you’re the infected one in the room and not seeing anyone’s face for 20 days, all in full PPEs, like hazmat suits — it is a very scary feeling, to say the least.”
Returning to music after being struck down by COVID-19
In time, Larson improved with help from friends, bandmates and family and gradually helped him get back to his music.
“They helped me see that light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Music has always been my absolute driver. I remember dancing to The Blues Brothers on my bed when I was 4. … Getting back to singing live was my absolute goal.”
At the age of only 11, he started seeing an otolaryngologist to realize his dream of becoming a singer. After COVID-19, Larson returned to the same doctor to help him now rejuvenate his voice.
“My throat was sore and all scratched up,” Larson said. “I had a lot of weird feelings going on in my mouth and throat because of being on a ventilator.”
Larson had a benign growth in the back of the vocal fold, a condition called intubation granuloma.
“My doctor said it looks like a large callus from the tube rubbing for so long, but he assured me this was the least of my worries – I had just survived COVID,” Larson said. “He knew we could take care of this.”
Larson started taking reflux medication and stopped eating acidic and spicy foods. A month later, the granuloma was gone.
“That was the day I was cleared to sing — about two months after I was discharged,” Larson said. “My vocal doctor told me not to go out and do a three-hour show, but who was doing that anyway? I started slow and took it easy.”
A month later, Larson had his first live show at the jazz club “Dazzle” in Denver. The event sold out, and though Larson had to perform behind Plexiglas, he was thrilled to be back on stage.
He also finished his music degree and when COVID-19 social restrictions eased, his performance schedule was booked. He’s performed at nearly 30 events this summer, and The Jacob Larson Band recently played The Taste of Colorado in Denver. This fall, the band plans to release “Totally Legal,” the album they had started recording before Larson got COVID-19. It will have 10 original songs — music best described as “straight from the 70s funk and soul” — of which Larson and guitarist Steve Langemo co-wrote and produced together.
Young COVID survivor sings from the heart
Larson has come a long way since the fearful nights of wondering whether COVID-19 would take his life. His return to the hospital to sing for those who held his hand and cared for him during that time was even more “surreal,” he said.
“Being able to see the doctors and medical staff that took care of me while I was in the hospital — being able to see them and also hug them — was so heartwarming,” Larson said. “It brought up some harder memories, but I was also able to create some positive, new memories.”
Writing music has helped in Larson’s recovery from COVID-19.
“It’s helped me process what happened,” Larson said. “Something hopefully brilliant will come out of something so traumatic in my life. There are some powerful stories to tell with songs coming out after this.”
For nurses like Mijares, Larson’s presence is a reminder that despite how hard the pandemic has been, there are many victories. Larson wants his caregivers to know that he won’t stop with his songs.
“I will do whatever I can to get people vaccinated and to keep people out of their ICU,” Larson said to workers at Longs Peak. “People and your past patients see you, hear you, and we are on your side when it comes to getting people vaccinated and keeping people safe.
“I’m here to tell people that COVID-19 is very real and extremely scary,” he continued. “We have to be one right now. We have to be together on this.”