Faces of COVID-19, part 2: It’s nowhere, and it’s everywhere

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“If I hear one more person with this [expletive] 99% survival rate, I’m gonna tell them to take their statistics and shove ‘em where the plaster sticks,” Charlie Martina told me in a phone interview.

Charlie’s been out of the hospital since Aug. 15. Like the rest of the COVID-19 “survivors” I interviewed for this series, he is dealing with the serious long-term effects of the infection that mitigate his status as a “survivor.”

“I wake up in the morning, and it’s like they vacuumed the air out of me,” he reports. “I feel that tightness in my lungs. My blood pressure is high. My heart beats 124 a minute [normal is 60-100].”

He gets up around 6 a.m. every day, but it isn’t until three or four hours later that he has the strength even to eat a bowl of cereal. His doctors have him on steroids to keep his blood vessels open, among the gravest dangers for COVID-19 survivors is blood clotting and strokes. On the day I interviewed him, one of his legs has been swollen from the time he had gotten out of bed. We spoke around 10 p.m. 

“I’m the guy who used to carry fifty grocery bags with my pinky finger,” he said with a sigh. “Now I’m like Kate Hepburn, my head shakes, my hands shake, and sometimes my legs hurt so much I’m like, ‘someone give me a saw!’”

A few days ago, he described the overwhelming fatigue in a Facebook post that he permitted me to quote. 

“I took a shower just now, before bed,” he wrote. “I have to say, it is, without a doubt, the toughest thing I have to do. It, quite literally, takes me so long and exhausts so much energy and breath from me...I need to rest up first, just so I can go to bed.”

That experience “winded” him so severely that he had to lean against the wall of the shower to catch his breath while the water ran over him. Afterward, he had to sit for 10 minutes before beginning to dry himself off. Then he went to bed.

“I have to plan these normal things we all take for granted, out to the minute, and how I'm going to handle it,” he wrote. 

Charlie’s wife, Annette, was diagnosed with and hospitalized because of COVID-19 back in July. Almost as soon as she was able to vacate Room 5 in the Rome Memorial Hospital, he took her place in the bed, attached to a machine that flashed lights and sounded an alarm every time he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. 

She, too, is suffering the long term effects of COVID-19. Charlie is only fifty-seven, Annette is even younger, but at times they feel like an “elderly couple.”

She calls him her “Moose,” a few days ago, she stopped into a convenience store to buy him some orange sherbet. 

“I was heading toward the cashier when I see this woman in her 30's or so...Unmasked,” she described the incident in a public post on her Facebook page. “ I asked her why she wasn't wearing a mask as she walked past me. You'd think  I called her a filthy name or something. She started shouting at me that she didn't have to. She also advised me to mind my own business. I advised her that it was my business since I had had COVID and spent two weeks in ICU. She jumped back about a foot; started yelling at ME to get away from HER.”

As Annette walked past her to cash register, she said, "What a shame you don't know which freezer handles I opened or what I may have touched.”

She still had her sense of humor, but it’s hard to see people refusing to take the most basic required safety precautions when they are in public. 

Annette described them as “Stupid people who think they are so wonderful.”

My friend “Ken” (he and his employer are remaining anonymous) works in retail. He encounters these “stupid people” regularly. 

“There are a handful of people out there who complain that we are infringing on their rights or even call us Nazis,” he told me.

I asked how that made him feel.

“It’s just…insulting,” he said, thinking about it. “It’s one of the worst things you can call somebody. I didn’t make the rules. I’m not putting you in a concentration camp to go to your death.”

Being called a “Nazi” for trying to keep his customers and co-workers safe from a deadly virus is deeply troubling. There have been some in his store who scream wild conspiracy theories.

“One person yelled, ‘the governor killed 60,000 people,’” Ken sighed. “I thought to myself, ‘well, President Trump killed 180,000.”  

He said that most do comply with the governor’s legal order requiring masks at all times in-store, but there is still the challenge of getting people to wear them correctly. Because of these actions taken by Governor Andrew Cuomo, County Executive Anthony Picente, and the people of this state who have cooperated, the infection rate statewide is now below one percent per day. But this achievement has led to a bit of a backlash.

“People have grown complacent because our numbers are so low upstate,” Ken said. “I think our numbers are going to trend up soon because of that.”

The main message that Ken wanted me to communicate was that the retail workers' people encounter daily are just asking the public to follow the same rules as everyone else.

“We’re just trying to get through this together,” he says. 

Ken asked me to share this bit of wisdom he had chosen as his senior quote when he graduated. It is by Pablo Casals, a legendary classical musician, and composer who was awarded a President Medal of Freedom by John F. Kennedy himself.

We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree, and the tree is all humanity,” Casals said. “We cannot live without the others, without the tree.”

“There’s no better way to think about life,” Ken concluded.

Earlier this week, Mary Lynn Fager messaged me from her bed in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Her bout with COVID-19 happened back in March, but the symptoms sometimes recur with such severity that she needs to be hospitalized to control her blood pressure and get enough oxygen.

“I never imagined I’d have it because no one around me had it,” she says, thinking back to the day in March she began to get sick. “Times have changed so much. Back then, no one knew what was going on. People have asked me, ‘did you wear a mask?’ I said, ‘no, because no one did.’”

She remembers driving home to Lewis County after visiting a friend in Poughkeepsie and hearing on the radio that they were closing the restaurants for St. Patrick’s Day. Since then, everything has changed.  

At age 49, she had been a competitive athlete all her life. 

“People knew me for running and being at the gym,” she said of her life pre-COVID. “I was a skier, martial artist, and I lifted weights.”

 She says the lingering symptoms are strange and varied. There are good days and bad days. 

“My body’s not holding me back on my good days,” she says optimistically. “I wake up in the morning, and I know whether I am going to have a good day or my bad day,”

On her good days, she can run and lift weights again. But on her bad days, she has to struggle to the couch, lie flat and push her chest out just to be able to get air into her lungs. 

Two weeks ago, an examination at WellNow in Rome ended with the medical professionals saying they wanted to help her but that she needed to go to an Emergency Room. She resisted until two bad days in a row made her desperate for oxygen. That’s how she ended up at St. E’s, where she stabilized a bit. 

She messaged me on her way out, “It’s so frustrating when you’re used to being a healthy person…to have this weirdness going on.”

Joining a “COVID Long Haulers” Facebook group has brought her a great deal of comfort and encouragement. There are several on the social media platform.

“[The group] it made me think I wasn’t crazy for the first time,” Mary Lynn said. “When I smelled phantom cigarette smoke or felt a burning hot knife in my back, or when my fingers go numb.”

She also learned that others are experiencing a stark increase in their appetite.

“I never ate breakfast before,” Mary Lynn told me. “Now I wake up ravenous. My stomach hurts; it’s so hungry. I eat from seven in the morning until midnight and still wake up ravenous. That’s five meals a day for a person who used to eat once a day.”

I asked her if she had a message she wanted me to get across to my readers. 

“It so simple,” she said with heartfelt emphasis, “just wear a mask. If you avoid making one person sick, it’s worth it because no one should have to live like this.:

Mary Lynn paused for a moment and took a deep breath.

“That’s what I want to communicate to people,” she said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

On Aug. 14, the day before Charlie Martina came home, his wife Annette, just out of the hospital herself, managed to walk out to their garden for the first time in weeks.

On her Facebook page, she described it as her “first attempt at distance walking.”

“Charlie planted this garden, and I couldn’t let any of it go,” she wrote. “There are more weeds than produce, but my Moose planted this garden. He worked so hard on it. He does it for me.”

That was about two weeks ago. I asked Annette how she was doing today. 

“I overdid it,” she said. “I usually do things one day then rest the whole next day.”

But, she looked outside, and weeds were growing in the garden. She had to tend to it-for Charlie.

It’s been a long summer for both of them. Both of them home now, but nowhere near over the illness that caused them to be taken to the hospital by ambulance.

“I’ve had more flashing lights in the driveway this summer than [expletive] Studio 45 did in the heyday of disco,” Charlie posted on Facebook. It’s good he has such a great sense of humor. Despite all he has been through, there are still some who mock him for wearing a mask, calling it a “face diaper.”

“Here’s my homespun tale,” he told me on the phone. “People are counted as COVID-19 ‘survivors.’ but if you live for ten years in a [expletive] wheelchair, it doesn’t mean you have a great life.”

“No, it sure doesn’t,” I agreed.

Then he added, “This isn’t something that’s going to go away.”

While I talked to him, and Annette, Mary Lynn, and “Ken,” as well as Randy, and “Ann,” from part one. I felt my chest tingle. I was recently tested at WellNow in Rome, and I am negative. I will have to be tested every week from now on because I an adjunct English teacher at Utica College. I don’t have COVID-19. But, even if it’s not in me, it’s all around me, and all-around all of us. It’s like the crickets we hear these late summer nights. There are so many of them out there, but in the darkness, we can’t see a single one.

I thought about something Assemblyman Brian Miller said when I interviewed him two weeks ago. I asked him if he knew where and when he had been infected and by whom.

“It’s a virus,” he answered philosophically. “It’s nowhere, and it’s everywhere.”

Ron Klopfanstein would like to hear about your experiences with COVID-19. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein

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