One year later, Riverhead man reflects on long journey of surviving COVID

It’s coming up on a year now. March 20, 2021. It will be a year ago Sunday. That was, hands down, the worst day in Mark MK McLaughlin’s life.

Mr. McLaughlin, a self-described entertainer, media personality and voice for the community, had been looking forward to taking part in a Colon Cancer Foundation fundraiser on March 21, 2021.

He never made it to the event.

Mr. McLaughlin, 35, had fallen ill. On March 20, 2021, the Riverhead man was admitted to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, where he received distressing news.

“I was weak,” he said. “I couldn’t move. I was aching all over and I had a fever of 103.

“I could barely hold myself up. I was able to get to the hospital and they said I had COVID and usually they would move me to another unit, but they kept me at the place where I was because they saw that my kidneys were declining.”

He continued: “This is what they told me, ‘You’re going to have to get used to a new lifestyle. You’re going to be on dialysis, and that’s if you live.’ ”

That was a big if.

With COVID-19 attacking his kidneys, Mr. McLaughlin, who lost a niece to kidney damage in 2006, was also receiving oxygen.

“Every day the doctor was just giving me bad news, you know,” he said. “My kidney levels weren’t improving. There was a lot of protein in my urine, and a lot of protein in your urine signifies that your kidneys are failing. So, they took a sample of my kidney to test it, to see if it was anything else, other than COVID, and it was nothing else. It was actually COVID that was doing the damage.”

It was during this time when a prerecorded interview Mr. McLaughlin did for CBS’s “The Donna Drake Show” aired on WLNY-TV. He received congratulatory text messages from people who saw the program but didn’t know he was in a hospital fighting for his life at the time.

“I was in tears because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be alive,” he said. “Nobody knew. I didn’t tell anybody that I was in the hospital. So they were texting me, congratulating me that I’m on CBS on ‘The Donna Drake Show,’ and I’m laying in my bed with my head in my chest, praying, wondering [if I’m going to survive], asking, ‘Why me?’ It was a very dark moment for me.”

Meanwhile, Mr. McLaughlin observed tragedies and pain suffered by other patients.

“There’s other patients that are there and they’re struggling and they were getting news that some of their family members passed away,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God. This is like unbelievable.’ They’re crying. They’re scared. You’re talking about grown adults crying and scared.”

Mr. McLaughlin’s only recourse was water — plenty of it (he figures he drank about two gallons of water a day to flush his kidneys) — and prayer.

And then, one day near the end of his three-week hospital stay, his prayers were answered. Doctors noticed the creatinine levels in Mr. McLaughlin’s kidneys were lowering. “And they were shocked,” he said. “Just the mere fact that I saw the shock in their faces, I then knew that, ‘Oh my God, this was real.’ They were happy. And every day it got better.”

Then came the happiest day in his life, when he was released from the hospital. Mr. McLaughlin said he had made a promise to himself when he laid in the hospital bed that he would one day walk out of the hospital. That’s precisely what he did, stopping a nurse who had intended to push him in a wheelchair. “I got up and I did exactly what I said I was going to do,” he said. “I walked through those doors.”

Mr. McLaughlin said he owes his life to PBMC, and he is grateful. That is why he has dedicated a song he wrote titled “Why Not Us” to the hospital. He said proceeds from the song, mixed and produced by Bill McDermott, a Grammy-Award-winning Nashville producer, will be donated to PBMC and Northwell Health, the system the hospital is affiliated with.

“Three things saved my life: God, my will to live and the Peconic Bay Medical Center,” he said.

Mr. McLaughlin, who teaches hip-hop and rhythm and blues classes at East End Arts in Riverhead, said the song will be released May 29, the same day he will host East End Arts’ 26th annual Community Mosaic Street Painting Festival in Riverhead. He said writing the song came easily for him.

“I didn’t think just about myself,” he said. “I thought about anybody else that could be going through this. I understand that during this time, during this pandemic, domestic violence rates are spiking, suicide rates are spiking, violence overall is spiking, and it’s like I just wanted to give people a song to just give themselves some kind of hope.”

Mr. McLaughlin said he will host a fundraiser for PBMC during National Hospital Week May 6-12 as well as serve as master of ceremonies for the PBMC Northwell Health Walk May 22. “These intiatives are my way of saying thank you,” he said.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Mr. McLaughlin said music became a big part of his life in part because of the influence of an older brother, Joe, a disc jockey who died from colon cancer. Mr. McLaughlin is an ambassador for the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Mr. McLaughlin said surviving his personal nightmare took mental strength. “I proved to myself that, you know what? I could do anything,” he said.

Yet, he still feels effects from what he went through. He said his blood pressure has been spiking, and he takes blood-pressure pills. Sometimes he feels weak. He can’t take aspirin, must stay away from salt and drink plenty of water. He said he continues to go to PBMC monthly to have his kidneys checked.

His experience speaks to how deadly COVID-19 can be.

“I doubted it,” he said. “I didn’t think it could happen to me. I thought it was like, ‘Oh yeah, whatever.’ I took it for granted. Then, when it hit me, it changed my life forever.”

Now, as the one-year anniversary of his admittance to the hospital approaches, Mr. McLaughlin said he finds himself thinking about it quite a bit. Even now, fear remains.

“Nobody understands it because I don’t really talk about it too much … because I’m still afraid,” he said. “… As scared as I am, I still want to be strong.”