By Kiet Do and Molly McCrea
SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — In less than a year, the world has turned upside down: a viral pandemic has swept the globe, and a second wave appears to be picking up steam in Europe.
As of Monday, September 21, COVID-19 has infected more than 31 million people, killing over 962,000. 20 percent of those deaths -– or nearly 200,000 -– are in the United States.
Among those hit with severe illness in the U.S. is Will Carroll of San Francisco. Carroll is the larger-than-life drummer for the legendary Bay Area thrash metal band Death Angel.
Hospitalized with a grim prognosis in late March, Carroll has made a remarkable recovery from COVID-19 in about six months. His story is a cautionary tale.
KPIX 5 first interviewed Will early January. 2020 was shaping up to be an incredible year.
Death Angel has just scored its first Grammy nomination, had a hit album with Humanicide, and a sold-out European tour.
After the Grammy party in L.A., the band hit the road on February 2 to join fellow Bay Area thrash-metal bands Testament and Exodus to team up for the five-week “Bay Strikes Back” European Tour. They were stoked.
“There wasn’t any mention of COVID at that time,” recalled Leeshawn Navarro, Will’s fiancée.
But in February and March, from Munich to Milan, an invisible threat was bearing down on the bands.
“They were in the middle of all of it,” recounted Will’s brother Mike.
The tour took place in the middle of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
In Milan Italy, the show was cancelled because of the virus. The bands directly went to Spain.
“Now we know that was another place of high COVID cases,” said Leeshawn.
On the second to the last day of the tour, Will told KPIX 5 that he felt “off.”
“I just assumed it was tour fatigue or maybe a hangover,” said Will.
On the flight home to SFO, the drummer’s temperature spiked with a fever. He began to get scared.
“I never get sick like that. Never!” he said.
Once he arrived home, Leeshawn Navarro grew alarmed. Will looked terrible. She told KPIX 5 that they contacted several virtual doctors and ERs about testing. They were told to take Tylenol for the fever, to drink fluids and to monitor symptoms. Will was struggling to breathe.
“Leeshawn was telling me I was acting really bizarre, just staring at the wall in a trance-like state,” recalled Will. At that point, Leeshawn decided it was time to get to the ER. Will said goodbye to the apartment. They held hands on the way to California Pacific Medical Center on Van Ness.
Once they arrived, since only Will had a temperature, his fiancée had to leave the building.
“I didn’t even get to say goodbye or anything. It happened so fast,” said Leeshawn.
He ended up in the ICU in a medically induced coma and eventually was placed on a ventilator for 12 days. Doctors told Leeshawn that he had a bad infection in his lungs and was in critical condition.
“I was scared and horrified and couldn’t believe this was happening,” said Leeshawn. She relayed the information to Will’s sister Diane, as well as to Mike and his older brother, Jim.
“I don’t remember any of that. It’s all a blur,” admitted Will.
“Everything happened really fast. He’s in the hospital. Now he’s in the ICU and then, later than night, it sounded like he wasn’t going to survive,” said Mike.
“He was fortunate to be in San Francisco,” said his brother Jim, noting how San Francisco along with five other Bay Area counties ordered a strict shelter-in-place by mid-March.
While in the coma, the drummer’s heart began to fail. It began slowing down, and his doctors told his loved ones to prepare for his death. Jim wondered how Will’s fans could react.
“How does a guy like Will, who is a legend in San Francisco…how do people come together and commemorate?” asked Jim. “I mean, the bars are closed.”
Leeshawn checked with Will’s medical staff hourly.
“They said things are grim and grave multiple times,” she recalled.
She called her grandparent’s priest and kept in touch with the hospital’s chaplain. She contacted healers for help. Leeshawn then reached out to family, friends, and fans on Facebook, asking them to pray for Will, light candles and to send healing thoughts.
Then, doctors tried a last-ditch treatment: an investigational drug called remdesivir. Because of his severe illness, Will was approved for compassionate use of the drug. This was before the FDA granted the drug Emergency Use Authorization status.
Will’s first dose was on March 26th. The ICU staff put Will’s body in a “proning position,” changed his ventilator settings and drained the fluids from his lungs. Will began to get weaned off the heavy doses of sedating medicine.
Then, hospital staff reported a promising sign.
“The doc and the nurse would say, ‘He’s air drumming in his coma!” exclaimed Mike.
It was then, according to his family, that the staff was told their patient was a Grammy nominated drummer. On March 30th, Will opened his eyes.
“Like, I had no idea why I was in the hospital. No idea. That was crazy, man, when I woke up,” remembered Will.
The drummer recalled seeing doctors come in just to see for themselves. Since Will’s use of the drug was “compassionate” and he was not involved in a clinical study, the staff can’t say if the drug made a difference or not.
But Will has no doubt.
“It just made me realize how close to death I was. Doctors are marveling over this,” chuckled Will.
“So he went from almost dying to two weeks later, he got to come home,” said Mike.
Two months later, Will began to play the drums and sing again. In addition to playing for Death Angel, Carroll also drums for My Three Sons, a cover band he formed with Mike and Jim.
When he sat down to practice, Mike and Jim were astonished. Will appeared unscathed by the virus.
“I was worried that when he plays, that he’s going to be winded because his lungs are probably damaged. And apparently it looks like there was no damage to his lungs,” said Mike.
“He wasn’t breaking a sweat,” said Jim. He also noted how Will was thinking clearly with no memory issues.
Will told KPIX 5 that his doctors expect a full recovery.
“I’m having more fun behind the kit then I’ve had in years. I’m really making the best out of these dark times,” said Will.
All three brothers have a message of warning about the disease.
“It’s a story that should be told,” said Jim.
They are urging everyone: don’t mess around with COVID-19. Wear a mask.
“I saw first-hand what it could do and it’s pretty scary,” said Mike.
“I see a lot of people still on the street not wearing a mask and it just breaks my heart,” said Will.
Leeshawn doesn’t want anyone to experience this horrible nightmare. She and Will said they were grateful to the medical team at CPMC. They also appreciate all their families, friends, and fans who sent healing vibes and lit candles. They believe that social distancing and the early lockdown really helped.
As for Will, he’s still a rock and roller, just a lot healthier. He eats better, drinks less and has lost about 40 pounds. He is walking every day for exercise and doesn’t take anything for granted.
Death Angel is also staying active during the pandemic and going strong. The group is working on a new album and has been hosting the popular “Alive and Streaming” video series on Facebook and YouTube. The series has found band members interviewing fellow metal heroes like Sepultura’s Andreas Kisser and metal drum giant Gene Hoglan as well as recording new covers of songs by Metallica, U2 and Mother Love Bone.
The legendary band is looking forward to summer 2021. If all goes right, and COVID is under control, the group is ready to take their brand of thrash metal on road once again with Death Angel booking dates for a return tour of Europe.