BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — A Bainbridge Island man's world was turned upside down after he developed a crippling case of psychosis following his recovery from COVID-19.
Ivan Agerton, 51, does not know where he contracted the coronavirus, but he is certain that the mystery virus left him with a mental condition that continues to affect his quality of life weeks after getting better from the ailment.
As a cinematographer, Agerton loves the story behind the camera and has traveled the globe to photograph some of the most beautiful places in the world. His work has been featured in "Blue Planet II" and "One Strange Rock."
But his years of storytelling has not prepared him for the living nightmare that occurred following his return from an expedition to Saudi Arabia.
"Somewhere along the way back I was exposed to somebody with the virus," Agerton said, adding that he spent 14 days in quarantine after testing positive for the virus. But what happened next was completely unexpected. "Received a spam call. It was a call and hang up, and like a light switch this paranoia took over me."
Agerton was suffering from auditory hallucinations while hearing people outside. He believed that people were watching him from every car that drove by.
For 48 hours, he struggled alone with his paranoia and hearing voices until he finally told his wife, Emily, about his battle.
After getting advice from a friend who was a nurse, the couple decided to visit a hospital emergency room.
"It just got to a point where he wasn't sleeping (and) he wasn't eating," said Dr. Veronika Zantop. "He was constantly preoccupied with this thought that people were out to get him or out to get his family."
Zantop was working an on-call shift over the 2020 Christmas weekend when Agerton was first admitted to Swedish Medical Center's Behavioral Health Unit in Ballard. That is where he would remain for over a week, missing Christmas holiday festivities with his family.
"Ivan had no cognitive issues so he had no problems with how he articulated his story or his memory or the linearity of what he was seeing," Zantop said. "The other thing that was surprising was that he had a lot of insight into his psychotic symptoms."
The symptoms included paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations.
"My rational mind was still intact," he said. "I was thinking this can't be happening; this isn't real."
Zantop said that is unusual for someone suffering from psychosis, but it turns out there were several things that didn't fit the typical psychosis diagnosis.
"He's 50 years old (and) he doesn't have any psychiatry history at all," Zantop said. "Has never had any psychotic symptoms or depression or mania.
A recent study out of the University of Oxford found that nearly one-in-five people diagnosed with COVID-19 received a psychiatric diagnosis within the next three months. Data shows that ne in four of those patients had not had a psychiatric diagnosis before contracting the virus.
Zantop said Agerton was never violent or suicidal but he was paranoid.
With medication he was able to get his symptoms under control and was released on New Year's Day. Agerton thought the problem was solved.
"Two weeks after that I was reading a headline of some raid somewhere and it retriggered the paranoia," he said, adding that he returned to the Swedish Behavioral Health Unit, where he was placed on new medications. He remained at the center for eight to nine days. "Then I got my vaccine, and once I had the vaccine about two days after I really started feeling much better."
While in the middle of his illness Agerton reached out to the New York Times in an effort to get access to doctors featured in the newspaper's reporting about the subject.
The newspaper ended up doing a story on Agerton's experience and featured him in a podcast
"We started receiving hundreds and hundreds of messages from all over the world of people that were suffering or their partner that was suffering from the same thing," he said.
Almost a year later, Agerton said he is still receiving messages from people who heard about his ordeal, which is why he said he is happy to share his story so that others know they are not alone. He also wants to raise awareness about how serious COVID-19 is for those who contract it.
Agerton said he is not 100 percent better yet even though he feels great, but still has not recovered his sense of smell. And he has since returned to work and has completed a month-long expedition.
Agerton has also been on medication since his psychosis diagnosis, and Zantop said just recently that they have started tapering the medication's doses in hopes that he can eventually stop taking it.