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'Scary as hell': 'Freaks and Geeks' actor says COVID-19 caused partial paralysis

Having one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine likely helped Jerry Messing survive his grueling experience with COVID-19.
/ Source: TODAY

In the middle of August, former “Freaks and Geeks” actor Jerry Messing felt like he had a cold and wondered if it was COVID-19. He had received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and was waiting for the second. One day he felt so bad, he asked his parents to take him to the hospital. As he was leaving, he collapsed and spent the next 21 days unconscious in the intensive care unit and is now experiencing some paralysis in his right arm and both legs. He’s shared his story to encourage others to get vaccinated.

“It is indeed important to be safe, vaccinated. And even if you are vaccinated, it doesn’t keep you from catching it,” the 35-year-old who lives in Tampa, Florida, told TODAY. “But the vaccine can keep you out of the hospital.”

'Scary as hell'

In mid-August, Messing started experiencing what seemed like cold symptoms — coughing for a few days. His father, Jim Messing, tested Messing’s oxygen levels, which were low, and Messing’s heart rate started increasing. When he asked to go to the hospital, he walked out to the hallway before collapsing.

“He was just absolutely so weak,” Patti Stiles, Messing’s mom, told TODAY. “We had to get paramedics to take him to the hospital.”

Jerry Messing was in the ICU for 21 days with COVID-19. He hopes people will get vaccinated after hearing his experience.
Jerry Messing was in the ICU for 21 days with COVID-19. He hopes people will get vaccinated after hearing his experience. Courtesy Jerry Messing

When he arrived, he was admitted to the ICU where doctors intubated him and put him on a ventilator. For the next 21 days, he was unconscious. He experienced pneumonia and MRSA and a few times his family worried that he wouldn’t survive.

“I just absolutely thought for a while we were going to lose him. There were a couple of close calls,” Stiles said. “It was just all, ‘Please God, he’s got so much to give to the world.’”

While Stiles and Jim Messing both tested positive for COVID-19, they had received both doses of an mRNA vaccine. Jim Messing had bronchitis before testing positive for COVID-19 so they’re unsure if he had any symptoms. But Stiles felt exhausted, lost her sense of smell and spent a lot of time in bed. Every day, Stiles called two times to talk to Messing in the ICU even though he was unconscious. She asked the nurses to play music to keep him encouraged.

“I said, ‘Can he hear?’ and she goes, ‘Oh yeah, he responds. But he can’t talk,’” Stiles recalled. “I said, ‘Jerry, you need to hang on. Don’t give up.’ And she told me that he nodded.”

After three weeks, Messing was weaned off the ventilator and woke. But he noticed he couldn’t move his right arm or his legs.

“It was pretty freaky,” Messing said. “It’s difficult. I’m not going to lie. I’m not used to not being able to do anything for myself. I’m not used to just lying in my bed all day.”

Messing is in a rehabilitation facility where he undergoes various therapies. Already he’s noticed a slight improvement in the paralysis, which doctors have told them is “COVID-related.”

“I can now somewhat move my legs. I can’t lift them or anything, but I can slide them a little,” Messing explained. “My right arm, I can sort of lift up.”

The doctors believe that Messing will be able to regain some function but they’re unsure how long it might take. He can also squeeze a ball with his right hand.

“Physically, he is doing so much better,” Stiles said. “His right arm, we’re helping him do exercise with that hand … It’s going to take a while for him to really get to being all better.”

Prior to contracting COVID-19, Messing lost 103 pounds and was hoping to lose more. In the ICU he lost 87 pounds, but some of it is muscle mass from not being able to move. He hopes when he recovers he can focus again on his health habits and lose more weight.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work and losing weight and when I get back on my feet, once I get out of the hospital, that will continue,” he said.

Messing said the doctors believe “the one shot saved me,” and Stiles said the doctors told her the same thing.

“They said that probably the reason Jerry didn’t die was because he had that first shot,” Stiles said. “They figured that probably helped a lot.”

The family is grateful Messing pulled through.

“I’m just so thankful that he’s out of the ICU and not on a ventilator anymore,” Stiles said. “He says he is so thankful he did not die. It gives you a whole new outlook on life.”

Messing said he would like to act again after he recovers.

“I haven’t acted in years though it is my intention to somehow get back into the industry once I’m healthy enough,” he said.

They hope that anyone still hesitant about receiving the vaccine, gets vaccinated after hearing about Messing.

“It’s just really important for people, who are able to, to get the vaccine. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Stiles said. “You don’t want to be in an ICU on a ventilator. You got a big old tube down your throat and breathing for you and it’s just scary as hell.”