"Finishing, for me, will be a huge accomplishment. I don't care how fast it is. I just want to finish," Tom Butts tells PEOPLE of his intense athletic goal

By Jason Duaine Hahn
April 13, 2021 12:13 PM
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Tom Butts
Credit: courtesy Tom Butts

Tom Butts admits he likes challenges, but the one he faced in 2020 was like none he had ever experienced before.

The 67-year-old attorney from Northern California spent 110 days at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Jose last year. Throughout that time, doctors fought to spare Butts from the same fate that's befallen more than 562,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States since the start of the pandemic.

Butts, who is still making strides in his recovery, is now aiming to compete in a half-Ironman event in September, where he'll swim, bike and run over 70 miles — activities that seemed unthinkable just a few months ago.

It was on March 21, 2020, that Butts was admitted into the emergency room after experiencing symptoms of coronavirus. A week earlier, the country had gone into lockdowns to mitigate the spread of the disease.

"I had the sore throat and coughing, but this was right at the very beginning," Butts tells PEOPLE. "I was quite worried. I was very worried. Because back then it was just — nothing good was happening."

"When the doctor told me he was transferring me to ICU," he recalls, "I texted my wife, 'I'm scared.'"

Butts' condition continued to worsen, and by March 26 — the same day his grandson, Harry, was born — he was placed into a medically induced coma.

"I know I was scared because they had me on oxygen, and my fever kept going up and down, and up," says Butts, who has five kids and 10 grandchildren between him and his wife. "I think I got as high as 103 degrees at that time."

Tom Butts
Credit: courtesy Tom Butts

"I'm a person who's very aware of what's going on around them," Butts says. "And I wasn't. And that's very unusual for me. I will not deny, I was scared. I was afraid I wasn't going to come out. It was totally out of my control."

Butts says he "never" had health problems before contracting coronavirus, and was often the fittest person in his friend group. He's always had an athletic side to him and participated in swimming in high school and college. When his son turned 16, Butts let him take the car for school, while he, instead, opted to use a bicycle to get around. Overall, he's participated in eight Ironman events dating back to 2001.

"I liked the challenge," he says of the race. "I'm stubborn and it helps me stay in shape."

But for nearly 80 days between March 26 and June 12, Butts' muscular body withered away in a hospital bed as doctors and his loved ones waited to see if he would pull through.

"The whole world had changed while I was asleep," he says. "When I woke up in the ICU, I looked up and there was a nurse there by the side of the bed. I couldn't talk because I had a tracheotomy. So, all I was doing is moving my hands as well as I could and trying to listen to what they were saying. I didn't know what was going on."

Soon after waking up, Butts says he was noticeably weaker, to the point where he couldn't muster enough strength to push the buttons on the television remote. Then, he looked at his legs.

"The widest part of my legs were my knees," he says. "I just remember looking at them, going, 'What the hell?' And my arms were just... there was no muscle. It was just bones. And I couldn't open my hands all the way. "

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Since waking up from his coma, Butts has spent much time in physical therapy, slowly rebuilding his capabilities and the strength that the virus, and time, took away from him. He credits his family and friends for giving him the strength to keep fighting.

Butts — who still has lingering symptoms such as difficulty breathing, tingling feet and a loss of hearing — was training for a half-Ironman event scheduled for May when he initially became sick. That event was then rescheduled to September, and Butts has focused much of his energy on training for that day, essentially picking up where he left off.

"I'm a very emotional guy. And every time I've crossed the finish line at an Ironman, there's a tremendous sense of accomplishment," says Butts, whose daily training involves spinning, aqua fitness and pilates, among other activities. "There's tears in my eyes, I just want to find my wife and hug her."

"This time because of where I'm coming from, in a matter of 14 months, there's going to be a lot of tears," he says of what it will feel like if he accomplishes his goal. "I'm going to be one of those guys coming across with my hands up in the air, celebrating. Then somebody's going to have to grab me because I'll probably be totally exhausted. Finishing, for me, will be a huge accomplishment. I don't care how fast it is. I just want to finish."