Surviving COVID-19: Lessons learned by a tech CEO

Jim Barrett met with clients in San Francisco in early March as the pandemic spread. After returning home, he got sick with what turned out to be COVID-19.

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Jim Barrett, CEO of Edge Technologies. 

Image via LinkedIn

COVID-19 has so far killed 116,250 people in the US and 437,939 people around the world as the coronavirus pandemic rages on without a vaccine. More than 2.1 million cases of the disease have been confirmed around the world, according to a COVID-19 online tracking dashboard, built and maintained by Johns Hopkins University. 

One survivor, Jim Barrett, CEO for Edge Technologies, a data visualization and analysis company in Arlington, VA., was one of the lucky ones. Barrett got the disease in mid-March and lived to tell his story about what the ordeal was like.

Barrett said he was infected with the virus during the week of March 1 while he was on a work trip to San Francisco to meet with clients. He had joined Edge Technologies as the chief operating officer in 2017 and was named as CEO on January 1, 2020.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

His exposure to the coronavirus came just before states around the nation began stay-at-home orders to try to get the pandemic under control.

Barrett began feeling sick on March 17, St. Patrick's Day, when he started showing what he would soon learn were classic symptoms of COVID-19, including a bad headache, a cough, shallow breathing, a loss of his sense of smell, and a fever of 102 degrees for several days.

"It all happened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so you could not really get tested and there wasn't clear information about what to do," said Barrett. He was tested at his doctor's office on March 19 for the disease, but the results didn't arrive for seven days, confirming that he had been infected with the virus.

By the time he received the test results, he was already feeling 90 % better, he said. From the first onslaught of symptoms until his eventual recovery, it was about 10 days.

But, after his COVID-19 experience, he would no longer be the same man, he said. The ordeal had taught him new lessons and given him deepened wisdom about life, illness, family, work, and what is important in it all, he said.

As his symptoms worsened at the beginning of his illness, he self-isolated in his South Carolina home in a separate room so he could stay apart from his wife and children to prevent them from being infected as well.

"I was probably sleeping 12 hours a day at that time," he said. "It was scary for my family. They were very concerned for my health and about what was going to happen. And I was worried about whether I got anyone in my family or any of our friends sick," because he had been around them after his return from the San Francisco business trip.

"Until I felt sick, I was conducting my normal life and seeing people," said Barrett. "It does make you think when you're exposed to something. There's not a problem until there's a problem."

His doctor told him that because there were not enough test kits initially to test his family for the virus, that they should assume they tested positive as well and should quarantine themselves.

"That's not a very comforting answer," said Barrett. "They had to worry for a couple weeks about me and themselves."

But as he slowly recovered in his home quarantine, his symptoms lessened and no one else in his family became sick. Later, antibody tests showed that his wife and children had not been infected by the virus.

Barrett said that despite his own illness symptoms, he knows he was really lucky to have avoided getting so sick that he would have required hospitalization and being put on a ventilator, as the most serious COVID-19 cases can require.

"You think about the people who have gone through so much more with this disease," he said. "I was hearing about the COVID-19 pandemic around the nation. You just realize that you survived it and how fortunate I was and how things could have been so much worse had I gotten more sick. Especially with everything we have been seeing everyday about how terrible this is for the country."

As April began and he started feeling better, that's when the true depth of his experiences with the virus struck him and when he began realizing some of the lessons he had been learning. "I felt like this is something other people can appreciate," he said. "The problem is that information about the coronavirus continues to be spotty, inaccurate, and that it sometimes doesn't make sense."

Throughout the experience, there's been a strong feeling of survival, he said.

"You worry, is your family OK? Are you OK?" he said. "That's the most important thing. You can't take that for granted."

At the same time, as the CEO of a tech company with some 50 employees, Barrett also had to worry about its operations and continuity while he was sick and unable to work at his usual pace.

"I was fortunate because I have a strong leadership team, and they took over for me," said Barrett. Company employees, who are located around the country, were working from home starting on March 16 due to state shutdowns. "I just leaned on my leadership team to focus on their responsibilities, including product marketing, development, customer success, customer service and the chief revenue officer. I could only work six hours in a 24-hour period, so I needed to rely on them."

Ultimately, Barrett learned from the experience that coping with information overload and communicating clearly have been central to getting through the ordeal.

"How do you come through something like this and make decisions with all this information coming at you at once?" he asked. "That is not easy. Communication is very important."

That approach helped with clients who scrambled to react as the pandemic spread, he said. "We had to help clients in tight situations, as they moved employees to their homes when the pandemic caused workplace shutdowns, and helped them get information that would allow them to make right decisions."

Ultimately, Barrett said he sees things differently today.

In a guest post for eWEEK in May, Barrett wrote that the two-week-long ordeal gave him a new perspective. His personal quarantine even had some positives, including giving him time to think about his business and who he is as a person, as well as appreciating his family even more due to their help in his recovery and care.

Empowering others to help at work while he was sick was another important lesson, he wrote. Learning to delegate was a huge step for him. The use of videoconferencing and other tech tools was eye-opening and effective during his recuperation, which will help him assist clients who need such tools in the future using his own real-world experiences as well.

Ultimately, Barrett is more reflective today after being broadsided by COVID-19. "I know it's nowhere as serious as many of the others who've been infected, or who have paid the ultimate price," he wrote in his guest column. "I hurt for them and for their families. I know I've been fortunate to have recovered as easily and as quickly as I did, and I'm determined to use the lessons I had the time to think about and learn during that time to move forward and be a better CEO. And a better person."
 

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