Meet the Surfer, 23, Who Lost Part of His Leg and One Lung to an Infection — and Then Got COVID

For Carter Parry, COVID-19 wasn't nearly the worst of his health concerns in 2020 — even though he did contract the virus in July, and by then had only one lung with which to combat it due to a different illness altogether.

Six months earlier, before the pandemic took hold in the United States, the Kaneohe, Hawaii-based surfer and IT specialist was rushed to the hospital after initially feeling cold-like symptoms following a trip back to his home state of Ohio over the 2019 holiday season, only to find himself facing a "pretty rapid deterioration" beginning with flu-like symptoms over the course of just a few days.

When he woke up two weeks later at The Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu to see his sister Devin by his side, "I was very confused how she got from Ohio to Hawaii in a few hours," the 23-year-old, who'd go on to have one lung removed as a result of methicillin-susceptible staphylococcus aureus (MSSA) and a below-knee amputation of his right leg due to related wet-gangrene formation, tells PEOPLE.

As the "super infection" in his blood — which resulted from the flu and pneumonia combined — spread throughout his body, Parry required more than 30 surgeries total, including the use of a cutting-edge technology that The Queen's Medical Center didn't have access to until last year: extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

And he recognizes how lucky the timing was for him. "If I got the same thing in 2018, I would've died, 'cause there's no way they could've medivacked me all the way to California in time without the ECMO that I needed," he says.

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Parry calls the medical staff at each hospital where he was treated — The Queen's Medical Center initially and then, later, at Akron Children's Hospital and Cleveland Clinic — "incredible" for "what they've been able to pull off," saying he "can't thank them enough for keeping me alive" and recalling a "Hail Mary" procedure that saved his other foot.

"My left foot was … going down the same route as my right, which had to be amputated because of the vasopressors taking away the blood from my extremities; they'd bring it to my vital organs to keep me alive," he says, remembering the digits of his left foot looking "like mummy toes" before they were removed.

To prevent him from becoming a double amputee, doctors "took a huge stretch [of skin] from my knee to my hip, and the nerve ending from my thigh, and transplanted that to my foot."

"[They] rebuilt the whole sole of my foot with my thigh tissue and fat, and that is a surgery that should not have worked but because it did, I am not a double amputee — which, for my lung condition, is huge," he continues.

As for how his medical team knew the foot surgery had been a success, "All the hairs on the bottom of my foot began to stand up in the cold operating room. So they knew the nerve was connected," Parry says, saying with a laugh of having hair on the bottom of his foot now, "I like to think there's gonna be some type of perk with that — maybe I can [channel] extra static electricity, or get better traction on my surfboard wax. We'll see."

Parry was in the hospital for six months total, having been released from Cleveland Clinic in May into inpatient rehab at Akron Children's Hospital, where his father Bob also works as a pediatric surgeon. And just as he was released from rehab in July, life threw him another curveball: COVID-19. Parry ended up getting the virus from his close friend Chase Putney, whom he considers a brother, in a "perfect storm" scenario after Putney unknowingly contracted the virus from his sister, even though they'd quarantined together.

While Parry tested positive for two months afterward, "In the scheme of things, compared to the flu, it was nothing," he says of his symptoms, telling PEOPLE that doctors "thought I was gonna die" considering his pneumonectomy but it "wasn't that bad" for him and he feels no lingering effects from the virus: "I felt weakened, but I didn't really have any pulmonary issues. As a man with one lung, that would've been a problem!"

The usually active Parry says he "couldn't really stand or walk" until about a month ago, and "I feel like I'm having a panic attack every time I do a single push-up." Even using stairs at home (which he would crawl up backwards, using his hands) would take about half an hour of solid effort — something that, as a surfer, reminded him of extra-tough sessions on the board.

"Imagine feeling more than suffocating," he says. "I've been in some pretty deep hold-downs surfing, where I've been held down for two wave periods and can't come up. … [But this is] worse because you're breathing, but your body is in this full panic mode where your muscles are starting to shut down because your oxygen level is so low."

As he continues to focus on his recovery ("my lung and cardiovascular strength can improve with work," he says, revealing that his remaining lung is "super damaged" to the point of it being "almost like I'm running on half a lung"), Parry plans to return to Hawaii sometime in early 2021 and go back to work at Avening Tech, who have been "so supportive" in holding his position for him and helping Parry with long-term disability as he recovers.

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In the meantime, Parry is splitting his time between his dad's house in Akron and the Cleveland Heights home of his mother Kim, a head fundraiser for the Cleveland Museum of Art whom Parry calls "a very special woman." Both of his parents have been "incredible" during this experience, helping him out with daily tasks in a way that has been vital to his recovery and, while he was in the hospital, even sometimes driving up to two hours to be with him "every single day" he was there.

Parry also has a goal of getting back on a surfboard — and eventually joining the Hawaii Adaptive Surf Team, even setting his sites on a possible Paralympics stint one day. He plans to chronicle his process of reintroducing himself to the waves via a vlog he's launching in 2021 in partnership with Putney's photography business, Chase Waves, and hopes to use the YouTube channel to inspire others to see "what hard work can do to change your life."

"It's really humbling, in a way," he says of his health struggle over the past year, adding of his doctors' outlook on his recovery and how his lung function could still improve, "They don't know if I've already hit that wall — if this is as good as it's gonna get — but I guess I just have to pave that way myself. And I plan to do it for anybody else that might run into a situation like this — let them know what is possible."

Parry doesn't plan on letting anything hold him back when he looks toward his future — in fact, he calls his situation "advantageous" in a way, in that "the tables have kind of been flipped" and given him a fresh perspective on considering the extent of not what he can't do, but what he can.

"I was dealt this hand and I just wanted to surf again — that's really all I was thinking about the whole time," he says, continuing, "My appreciation for life has just altered so much in a positive way. … I think my life's gonna be better than it was before."

Parry adds, "I might not even be able to stand on a surfboard anymore, but I'm sure as hell gonna try."

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