Surviving COVID-19

More than 219 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19 – some 41 million Americans among them. Almost 4.5 million have died – including nearly 670,000 Americans. But amid the grim statistics are the stories of those who recovered. Nobody knows how many people that may be. Data on recovery is sketchy at best and fundamentally unreliable. And recovery is hard to track and even harder to define when symptoms may linger long into the future. Still, millions of people across the globe and right next door have survived their brushes with the disease caused by the coronavirus. They all have stories.

Here are just a few of them. 

‘Mom, you’re a Viking! We don’t go down like this.’

When 75-year-old Gail Rooney woke up on March 29, 2020, she thought she had the flu. She felt lightheaded and was having trouble breathing. She waited awhile, but then she decided to go to the medical staff in her assisted living facility in Medford for a check up. 

Even though a novel coronavirus was already sweeping the globe, tests were not available in her facility, so she was sent by ambulance to Stony Brook University Hospital, where she was diagnosed with a new disease called COVID-19.

“I didn’t know what to think at the time,” Gail said. “Because we didn’t know much about it.”

She doesn’t remember most of her almost one-month stay in the hospital, but her oldest child, 51-year-old Colleen Dixon of Lindenhurst, recalls feeling on edge from the start – not knowing if her mother would survive or if she would even be able to say goodbye. It was hard for Colleen to concentrate at her job as a medical biller, unsure of her mother’s condition.

“It was heart wrenching, it was gut wrenching,” she said. “You literally sat on pins and needles every day wondering, ‘Are they still alive? Did they pass away and they just haven’t gotten around to calling me?’”

The only way she was able to see her mother was through FaceTime, thanks to nurses in the intensive care unit (ICU). What she saw was her once-strong, active mother unconscious in a hospital bed – intubated on a ventilator and being cared for by nurses dressed in large, white hazmat suits.

“We think she can hear you,” Colleen remembered the nurses telling her. 

She would give her mother words of encouragement, telling her to keep fighting. “My mother happens to be about 50 percent Norwegian,” Colleen said. “So I would be like, ‘Come on, mom, you’re a Viking! We don’t go down like this.’ I would try to be that cheerleader … I felt like it was important for her not to hear sadness or fear in my voice.”

Every day she waited for the nurses and doctors to give her updates. Sometimes, she called them several times a day. She was grateful for any bit of information, even if it was that her mother’s condition hadn’t changed.

“No change meant she’s still here,” Colleen remembered thinking.

In the meantime, the medical staff at Stony Brook University Hospital was scrambling to treat an increasing number of patients. It was the “first wave” as many people called the early weeks of the pandemic, and New York City was where the tsunami hit. Long Island wasn’t far behind.

Around the same time Gail was admitted to the hospital, Dr. Apostolos Tassipoulos, Stony Brook’s chief of vascular surgery, was researching new treatment protocols for COVID-19. One of his residents had noticed an unexpected trend in COVID-19 patients in the ICU – high rates of thrombosis, a type of blood clotting that occurs in veins or arteries. Tassiopoulos started making calls to doctors and researchers in Italy and China to see if they were finding the same issue. 

“The guys in Italy clearly confirmed that they were seeing a higher rate of vein thrombosis in these patients,” Tassiopoulos said. “We decided that probably we need to be more aggressive with preventing these thromboses, particularly in patients that were in the intensive care unit.”

He pitched the idea of adjusting blood thinners according to a patient’s D-dimer levels – the leftover protein particles floating in the blood after a clot breaks down. After some research and conversations with colleagues, Tassiopoulos and his team began treating patients with the new protocol of administering higher doses of blood thinners based on their D-dimers. Mortality rates dropped from 58 percent to 27 percent. 

The new protocol helped save Gail Rooney’s life. After nearly a month in the hospital, she was taken off the ventilator.

Colleen remembers getting the call that her mother was awake. She was going to survive. “When I heard, I ran to everybody like, ‘She made it, she made it, she made it.’ My coworkers were all crying with me.” 

Gail was released on April 28, 2020 – after 30 days in a hospital bed, 15 of them on a ventilator. From there, she was sent to a rehabilitation center in West Babylon for in-patient physical therapy. 

But Gail’s fight didn’t end there. She ran into more complications and was sent to Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, where she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Several weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed. She is now cancer-free.

After spending last summer in the rehab center, where she could only communicate with her family through a window, Gail is back home in her assisted living complex. She is fully vaccinated and happy to be alive to hug her two granddaughters – Colleen’s daughters – 18-year-old Erin and 21-year-old Kayla. After so much time apart, the first thing Gail did when she finally saw her daughter and granddaughters was embrace them.

“I suddenly became a little kid again,” Colleen recalled. “No matter how old you get, part of you still longs for the comfort of your parent. You don’t realize how much you need it until it’s not there anymore.”

Gail said she doesn’t take life for granted after surviving a disease that has killed more than 660,000 Americans. She hopes other people won’t either.

“If you get the chance, go get vaccinated,” Gail said. “Don’t take other people’s lives for granted.”

‘This whole pandemic has just taught me that life is very short.’

Kristin Silvestri got the call that her father had tested positive for COVID-19 as she left her neurobiology class in November 2020, a month before she was set to graduate with a degree in biology from Stony Brook University. She left the campus, contacted the school to report her exposure and went for a rapid test. Later that evening, she got her results. She, too, was positive.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least one in seven residents of Suffolk County – more than 214,000 people – have been infected with COVID-19. The Silvestris – including Kristin’s parents, her sister and her sister’s fiancée – joined the group. The family thinks Kristin’s father was exposed after taking her mother to a hospital a week earlier for other medical issues, but they are still unsure.

For any family, being infected with COVID-19 can be frightening. But for the Silvestris, it was especially so. Her father’s cousin, whom Kristin grew up calling uncle, died of the virus in April 2020. 

“It was a shock because I had parents that were the same age as my uncle,” Kristin said. “And I didn’t know what was gonna happen.”

Kristin’s parents lost their senses of smell and taste and suffered with migraines and fevers. Kristin also got migraines and a fever, but maintained her senses of smell and taste. No one had major issues besides the common body aches and headaches. After 10 days, Kristin and her family recovered – and she and her mother have since tested negative.

While recuperating, Kristin kept up with her classes and assignments since she said her final semester was more manageable than previous ones. And she stuck with healthy routines. “I knew I had to maintain my health at the time, so I was eating very healthy, drinking a lot of fluids,” she said. “I was able to bring myself back to recovery faster.”

Kristin and her family played it safe throughout the pandemic, so she said it was disheartening when they became infected by chance while other people her age who were acting less responsibly went unscathed.

“It bothers me because I’ve experienced loss,” she said. “I wasn’t partying, I wasn’t doing those things. I got COVID on coincidence. … I was doing the right thing, and I still got it. And there’s people that are out there, doing whatever they want, whenever they want.”

The pandemic affected the Silvestris in a very personal way, but Kristin – who did indeed graduate last December – was affected professionally as well. Kristin decided not to start a career in health care. Instead, she wants to pursue her dream of owning her own business. For now, she runs an online cookie business called Downtown Dough with her older sister.

“I was doing the right thing, and I still got it. And there’s people that are out there, doing whatever they want, whenever they want.”

– Kristin Silvestri about her COVID-19 diagnosis

“This whole pandemic has just taught me that life is very short,” she said. “It just changed my whole outlook on life and what I want to pursue in the future. … I just want to do whatever I love.”

Kristin’s entire family is vaccinated. But she isn’t and she’s still not sure if she will get the vaccine. Even so, she wants to travel to Europe one day, something she had planned to do last year before the pandemic sent everyone home.  

“That was the biggest thing I wanted to do through college,” she said. A trip to Europe beckons when the global pandemic ends and the world returns to normal. 

‘What I Learned From Almost Dying.’

Doug Jansson settled onto a wooden stool on the stage at Living Word Church in Hauppauge, pink and blue lights glowing behind him. His wife, Kelly, and their three children listened to him from the front row. 

“It is the day we have been praying for,” a church director said as he introduced the lead pastor who needed no introduction.

Jansson looked like any other 43-year-old dad — he wore a blue-checkered button-up shirt and loose-fitting jeans. The neatly trimmed full beard on his face made up for the lack of hair on his head. Even with a mask on, it was easy to tell he was smiling. 

If Jansson hadn’t titled his sermon, “What I Learned From Almost Dying,” it would have been hard to tell that just a couple months earlier, he was on his deathbed in Stony Brook University Hospital, about to become another victim of COVID-19. 

It began in early December 2020 when his entire family tested positive for the virus. For the first week, he experienced flu-like symptoms, nothing out of the ordinary for those who get COVID-19.

A week later, his family began to recover while his symptoms got worse. A friend in the medical field recommended he go to the hospital. Jansson was placed in an ambulance thinking he would be back home in no time.

“I honestly just thought that, like, it was going to be a quick thing,” he said. “I was hoping that I’d be home that night or the next day.”

No one could have predicted the mountain of complications that Jansson would experience. He was given medication, and when that didn’t work, he was placed on a ventilator. His condition was getting worse.

On Christmas Eve 2020, the pastor was close to taking his last breath after testing positive for the coronavirus just a couple weeks earlier. His oxygen levels were low and sinking fast. Eventually he was put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which is a heart-lung machine that supports either of these vital organs when they are too compromised to function on their own. In Jansson’s case, his lungs weren’t pumping enough oxygen to keep him alive, even with the ventilator.

Without it, the likelihood of Jansson’s survival was approaching zero, said Dr. Allison J. McLarty, director of the ECMO program at Stony Brook University Heart Institute. “My wife was called to the hospital the day before I was put on the vent and basically told to say goodbye,” Jansson said. 

“I honestly just thought that, like, it was going to be a quick thing. I was hoping that I’d be home that night or the next day.”

– Doug Jansson

“There were really, really scary times,” he said. “But we’re people also with strong faith in God.”  And his family was “praying like crazy for me. They were rallying the church and the community and even the online community to be praying for me.”

Jansson remembered wrestling with the bleak reality that he might not return home to his family. This was before he was sedated and put on the ventilator, when the doctors told him the medications were not working.

“I just went to God with them and said, ‘God … I’m gonna fight with everything I have to be here, but I also trust you and trust not only my life in your hands, but my wife and kids’ lives, that if this was the time that I’m going to be taken that you’re going to carry them and sustain them and give them all that they need,” Jansson said. 

Luckily, it never came to that.

The ECMO treatment worked and Jansson’s condition improved, and eventually he was taken off the machine. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. About a week later, his right lung collapsed and he was rushed into surgery. In three different surgeries, three tubes – Jansson describes them as each the size of iPod charging cords – were inserted into his chest, back and side.

“I got a nurse there holding my hand,” Jansson told his rapt congregation. “I’m breaking this poor lady’s hand and they’re putting another tube in me. And I’ll tell you, when that second tube went in my back, my lung began to fill with oxygen again. It was probably the most painful thing I’ve ever felt in my life.”

He shared with his congregation details of the procedures he endured, explaining he had to be awake during each of them. And he thanked the doctors who worked to save him and relieve what he described as immense pain. 

“I went through it. And it’s not because I’m strong – biggest wimp in the world, got a little cut on my finger doing yard work and I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus, help me.’”

After 20 years as lead pastor, his congregation is used to his personal tales. Even his most intense hospital stories are punctuated with funny anecdotes. Yet he always ends with a deeper, spiritual message:

“But there was grace, and there was strength.”

Instead of becoming a statistic in a global pandemic, Jansson – after 63 days in the hospital – became the only COVID-19 patient at Stony Brook University Hospital to come off ECMO and go home to his family during the course of the pandemic, explained McLarty of the Heart Institute.

Recovery was still a battle. After spending more than two months in a hospital bed unable to move, Jansson could barely swing his legs to the side of his bed without getting dizzy. 

It would be a few months until he would be strong enough to get back on the stage at Living Word Church and give a full, hour-long sermon again. He started slowly – getting on stage for a few minutes to give the announcements and a short prayer. 

“It was actually really difficult that first week.” he said. “When I was doing the announcements I had to keep stopping. Everybody was gracious.”

He is still recovering. His doctors aren’t quite sure if he will ever be back to his old self. Plenty of COVID-19 survivors are still battling so-called “long haul” symptoms from their infections. But Jansson says he feels about 80 percent better, and hopes to keep improving.

“I’m doing my best to just try to be taking walks and exercising and just really trying to get those lungs using full capacity again, because they’re not there yet,” he said. “But it’s getting better and better every week.”

Even after all the pain and uncertainty, Jansson keeps a positive perspective on his near-death experience.

“Our faith, I would say, has been strengthened,” the preacher said. “Just seeing God do what several of the doctors really truly called a miracle.”

‘We don’t have all the answers.’

Like Doug Jansson, many COVID-19 survivors are still recovering. Even some survivors infected during the pandemic’s first wave in March 2020 continue to experience symptoms.

For many, the challenges are physical. Doctors have found COVID-19 can impact several parts of the body, including the lungs, heart, brain, kidneys and other organs. But what doctors aren’t sure of yet, is if – and why – these symptoms will persist and for how long or how to treat them.

That’s why Stony Brook Medicine opened a post-COVID-19 clinic in Commack for survivors known as “long haulers” – people who experience long-term symptoms. The clinic allows doctors to monitor and research post COVID-19 issues, while also treating patients. It was the first of its kind on Long Island. Other hospitals and health care networks have since opened similar clinics. 

Dr. Sritha Rajupet, the lead primary care physician at the clinic, has been working there since it opened in November 2020.

“We recognize that people are still struggling,” Rajupet said. “We wanted to be able to provide a resource to our community. … So largely, it was one to meet that need, but also to think about where is the future of our research.”

Doctors at the clinic are using this opportunity to research how the disease affects individuals and how to care for survivor populations in the future. About 200 patients visited the clinic in the first five months.

Mental health services complement physical treatment. One resource is an intimate survivor support group that meets virtually once a week.

“We recognize that people are still struggling.”

– Dr. Sritha Rajupet, lead primary care physician at the post-COVID-19 clinic run by Stony Brook Medicine

Dr. Jenna Palladino, a health psychologist at Stony Brook Medicine, runs the support group, which is open to anyone impacted emotionally by COVID-19. The virtual group is made up of seven survivors from different parts of New York. Their ages range from late 20s to mid 60s, so many of them experienced the infection differently, but still share similar struggles.

“One thing everyone really connects with is just this kind of like, ‘Am I healthy? Am I going to get it again?’” Palladino said. “This kind of fear and this loss of time … and just feeling like fatigue and frustration with other people for not taking it seriously.”

Most of the group’s members were infected during the early weeks of the pandemic, and some are still experiencing physical symptoms, like loss of taste and smell, which has contributed to the decline of their mental health. The members share the day-to-day stress that comes with losing olfactory functions, like not being able to enjoy a meal with their families the way they used to, Palladino said.

“They learned from each other ways to cope with that or manage those symptoms a little bit more,” she explained. “They didn’t necessarily need my psycho-education in the same way they needed to hear from each other and support each other.”

Health care professionals like Palladino, who are helping survivors on the long journey to recovery, have learned much from their patients as well. “I think this has all been an incredible year of reconnection for all of us,” she said.

“I think it humbles all of us as providers. … We don’t have all the answers, and we need to work with our patients to learn from them… how to manage and give support in a way I’ve never had to before. What I mean by that is, I’ve never lived through a pandemic, while also counseling people in a pandemic. It is definitely a different experience as a clinician.”

If you are a COVID-19 survivor looking for help, you can visit the website of Stony Brook Medicine’s post-COVID-19 clinic for resources or to set up an appointment.