My COVID-19 Story
Before you read my story, there are a few things I want you to know.
First, while my intention is not to scare anyone, it is important to know the severity of this virus. I too wish to see family, friends, colleagues, and students in person and not just through FaceTime or Zoom, but it isn’t worth what I went through.
Second, social distancing is important. To date, I don’t know of anyone whom I have interacted with that has this virus, which means I was exposed to someone who was asymptomatic. Stay home. Wear a mask if you need to go out.
Third, I added some “life lessons” throughout. I hope you will find them meaningful.
The symptoms began on Saturday, March 21 in the evening. I started to feel feverish, and after taking my temperature, realized I was running a low-grade fever. Despite taking Tylenol on Sunday, the fever hadn’t subsided, and I was beginning to feel achy. I went to Urgent Care on Monday morning. The doctor tested me for strep, flu, and did a chest x-ray to check for pneumonia, and all tests came back negative. They prescribed Tamiflu for my flu-like symptoms and encouraged me to continue taking Tylenol for the fever.
After the visit, symptoms only grew worse. My fever was now running as high as 102 and a cough was beginning to develop, partially dry, but partially producing phlegm. I went for a follow-up visit to Urgent Care on Wednesday, March 25, and was prescribed a cough suppressant and a Z-pack, but even after taking these and more Tylenol, symptoms persisted.
The first ER visit
On Saturday, March 28 it became a bit difficult to breathe. I took this as a sign to finally go to the emergency room at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. There was not much of a wait that morning, and I was brought back to a room within 20-30 minutes. After going through the process of having vitals taken and some tests run, they informed me that they saw bilateral patchy opacities in my lungs (COVID-19), but I would only be swabbed and tested if I was to be admitted. At that point since my oxygen levels were fine, they discharged me after a few hours. The doctors and nurses told me it was best to try to heal at home if I was able to breathe fine, but if that changed I had to return immediately.
The next day
The next day, Sunday, March 29, I found it a bit harder to breathe than the previous day. At this point I was still running a fever and had a bad cough, though now the phlegm was starting to turn to blood. By early afternoon, my fingernails were turning purple, a key sign I was not getting oxygen. I decided at this point I needed to return, and drove myself to the hospital.
LIFE LESSON #1: Don’t drive yourself to the hospital if you aren’t feeling well.
The ER: Take Two
I parked my car, and as soon as I got out, my ability to breathe had gotten worse. It took me a good amount of time to walk from my car to the entrance of the emergency room, a mere 100-200 feet away. The emergency room was very different when I arrived around 2PM compared to the day before.
This time, it was packed. When I walked in, seeing me in some respiratory distress, the gentlemen encouraged me to take slow deep breaths, find a seat, and gave me a number to wait to be called (#30). The next number I heard them call was 23, and it took an hour-and-a-half for my number to be called. I walked up to the registration area, gave my name and birthdate, verified my address, and was given a bracelet and told to wait in a new area. After another 45 minutes, I was called in to a triage nurse. Right after she took my vitals, she called for a wheelchair so they could put me on nasal oxygen. I coughed my way through the brief version of the past few days, and told her I had been there yesterday, and they moved me back into the waiting area.
While I waited another 45 minutes, I was astounded how some people were treating the employees. I did feel for them knowing that they or their loved ones were in similar states, but we must remember that no matter the circumstances, be nice to those around you.
LIFE LESSON #2: Always be nice.
At this point, somewhere around 5PM I was wheeled into the back in a room in the emergency room. I was helped into the bed, hooked up to machines for my vitals to be monitored, and had an x-ray and EKG done. It wasn’t too long before a doctor came in to see me, informed me the x-ray was worse than the day prior, and explained that they would be admitting me. At this point they swabbed me for COVID-19, though they were quite confident I had it (spoiler alert: it did come back positive). They started me that evening on hydroxychloroquine.
LIFE LESSON #3: You never know who you will see from your past.
Just after 7PM, a new nurse walks in the room and says “Jared Berry!? It’s me, Maria!” Now mind you, the staff are covered head to toe in scrubs and masks, and all you can see are their eyes. But Maria was not only someone I went to high school with, but also my date to my senior prom. She (along with all of the staff over what will be the coming days) took great care of me. I learned a new term from her. At one point, I had to stand up from the bed which caused me to desat (a decrease in oxygen saturation level in my body).
Around 3AM, a transport team had come in to move me out of the emergency room to another room on the floor which was used as an “admitting” room – somewhere for me to temporarily be until my room upstairs was ready.
Once settled in my new room, I did what I could to relax, but could not sleep all evening. After not seeing anyone for some time, at 5AM, the lights came on and a man walked in, and exclaimed “Jared Berry! It’s me, Tim!” Tim was a friend from way back in elementary school. We used to be on a CYO bowling team together for years and were friends through high school.
At this point, all I could think of is how much my friends would be judging me. Whenever I go somewhere, I always run into people I know, and I could imagine the reactions of some of my friends, knowing that I’d run into two people in the hospital that I know. Some of the nurses even remarked about how I knew so many people.
Anyways, Tim told me how he was a doctor and saw my name and had to come see me. He was calming, and said there was a chance I’d have to be intubated, but it wouldn’t be for long but it’ll be fine. Granted, this wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but his demeanor was reassuring. It probably helped that I hadn’t slept all night which helped me focus on the way he presented the information, as opposed to overthinking and panicking about the possibility of intubation.
By 8AM I had been moved upstairs into a room. I remember getting out of the stretcher and walking with help into the bed a mere three feet away and becoming extremely winded. It was a small room with two beds, and shortly after I settled in my bed, someone was brought to the bed next to me. I never saw him as the curtain was drawn separating us. I was lucky to have the window view, though there wasn’t much of a view I could see. I was able to sleep for about an hour, and then breakfast came in – my first meal since being home the day before.
I had settled as best as one could expect in the room. Thankfully from years of working at NYSSSA and having to do runs to the emergency room, I knew to bring my phone charger and AirPods. The charger remained plugged in, and thankfully reached onto the bed just enough.
LIFE LESSON #4: You should always have at least one long cord to charge your phone/devices.
Late in the night Monday (technically 1AM on Tuesday) was perhaps the scariest moment during my time at the hospital. No, actually I’d be willing to say in my life. I remember a nurse waking me up, saying “Mr. Berry, are you able to take a few deep breaths for me?” The next thing I remember, I was surrounded by eight people all calling my name (I later learned that this was a rapid response team) to tell me what was happening. My oxygen levels had dropped and my fever spiked to 104. With the nasal oxygen already pumping, they put a non-rebreather face mask on to pump more oxygen. They turned me on my stomach, as this was apparently a way to help the lungs work to get oxygen. They also started putting bags of ice all over me to help bring the temperature down. This was the moment that I (and they) thought I was going to be intubated.
Thankfully, though it took some time, they stabilized me. They eventually left me to continue to sleep on my stomach, which I found rather uncomfortable, and remember calling the nurse to find out if I could turn back.
When I woke up that morning for breakfast, things were now different. I was still able to eat solid food, but it was a process. I had to remove the mask, take a bite of food, digest it, and put the mask back on for a minute or two to get oxygen back into my system. It was cumbersome, but I was thankful to still be eating solid foods.
The Clinical Trial
Fast forward to Wednesday, April 1. I still have a temperature, and I’m on the non-rebreather face mask and nasal cannula for oxygen. My doctor had come in along with another doctor who was looking for consent to put me on a clinical trial. The trial consisted of being on a rheumatoid arthritis medicine, Sarilumab, which would be given to me through an IV for an hour. The idea was to flush my immune system, which had been overworking for over a week now. After asking about potential risks and side effects and realizing how low they were, and with the encouragement of my doctor, I went for it.
The drug ended up working. From that point forward my fever broke. The staff did spend the next few days giving me tons of vitamins to replenish my immune system, but I was thankful that one of the major symptoms was out of the way.
Over the next several days, things remained relatively the same. I was put on a second clinical trial drug given to me every six hours. There wasn’t much of a change in my breathing. I was still eating solid foods, and I was given lots of medicine.
On Monday, April 6, the medical team decided it was time to try breathing without the non-rebreather mask. We took it off and I thankfully adjusted pretty quickly to just using the nasal cannula oxygen. It was a relief to be able to eat meals semi-normally for the rest of the day.
After dinner, as I was settling for the evening, the staff had changed shifts, and when the new nurse introduced herself, she informed me I was being moved. When? That evening. I wasn’t thrilled about the change, as I had no idea where I was going or why, and couldn’t really get an answer.
After 9PM two transport workers arrived, moved me to a stretcher, and took me out of the room. It was mentally refreshing to see something different than the three walls and curtain in my room. I was wheeled out of the unit, to the elevator, and brought downstairs through a series of hallways into the auditorium that had been converted into what looked like military barracks. To my estimation, there were about 40 beds throughout the room, each separated on the side by a white screen. The beds were a mixture of stretchers and cots, each with an oxygen tank next to it. And, because it was an auditorium, there were no windows or sights of the outside world.
As they rolled me to the area where I was going to be “parked”, I saw a small cot. They quickly realized there was no way that I, a 6’ 7” man, was going to fit in that cot. It took a team of eight nurses to move the cot out of the spot, so that I could stay in the stretcher. Each member of the staff was covered head to toe in scrubs and wearing masks and other protective gear. Every bone in my body wanted to help them move the cot, as I can only imagine how much energy it took for them to move it, and how they were breathing in their own carbon dioxide being in those masks. I thanked them several times for going out of their way to make sure I would be comfortable.
LIFE LESSON #5: Manners are important. Always say thank you. And as a former employer would always say, the correct response is never “no problem.” It is always “you’re welcome.”
Getting off oxygen
Day 10 – Tuesday, April 7, and my first full day in this auditorium. I found out this room was the stepping stone to being discharged. I was thankful to hear I was closer to getting out, but throughout the night there was the persistent din of people coughing throughout the room all night mixed with old fashioned call bells (used to call for a nurse) dinging away. This, mixed with laying on a stretcher that was clearly not meant for people of my height, was not conducive to getting sleep.
LIFE LESSON #3 (review): You never know who you will see from your past.
The daily morning routine around 6AM throughout my stay involved giving blood for testing. The nurse this morning struck up a conversation with me.
Him: “So what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a high school music teacher”
Him: “Oh, where?”
Me: “Right over here at Manhasset High School”
Him: “Cool.” *pauses for a moment* “Do you know any music teachers in Suffolk County?”
Me: “Sure do.”
Him: “Do you know Tom Barna?”
Me: *pauses* “You went to St. John the Baptist, didn’t you?”
Him: “How did you know?”
Me: “My first year of teaching, Tom was my colleague. When he passed away I took over one of the bands.”
Him: “Wait.” *looks at the label on my vial* “Oh, Mr. Berry!”
Now I didn’t have him as a student, but Joe was a senior at SJB my first year teaching there. It was a bit surreal for me only eight years into my career as a teacher, having a former student as a health care worker taking care of me. We exchanged a story or two until he had finished his task, and I was sure to relay to some former colleagues from SJB that he was doing great work on the front lines.
That morning after taking my vitals, the nurse adjusted my nasal cannula oxygen to 8L. She said we’ll try to decrease it by 1L every few hours to slowly wean me off of the oxygen. For those who know me, I’m an overachiever, and I viewed this as a competition. I did the best I could to rest that morning.
Around 2PM, I woke up from a short nap. I realized we hadn’t adjusted the oxygen level. I called for a nurse and asked if we can adjust it. They first checked my vitals to make sure I’d adjusted well to the 8L. Once the nurse saw my vitals were good, she looked at the levels on the oxygen tank, and turned to me and said, “um…do you feel oxygen coming out?” I was a bit surprised by the question. Why wouldn’t I feel oxygen coming out? I took the piece out and put my finger up to where oxygen pumps out and I felt nothing. “No, I don’t,” I responded. The oxygen tank ran out. I was breathing room air with great vitals and O2 levels.
Now, for a brief moment I thought “wow what would have happened if I had needed that air?” But instead, my overwhelming feeling was “Great! No more oxygen! Let’s get out!” I sat for a little while with the nasal tube off which felt liberating. Later that day, the nurse told me to slowly take my time to sit up and get my legs swung off the bed, she would help me walk for the first time. The thought of taking time to simply swing my legs off the bed sounded so easy as it is something I was very accustomed to, but having not done this simple task in 10 days, it took me quite some time, especially to do it without my oxygen level going down.
After about half an hour, my nurse, Angie, returned and I was ready. I stood up for the first time and took a moment to remember my full height. The nurse upon seeing me standing told me there was no way she’d be able to catch me, not realizing how tall I am after seeing me in a bed. Slowly, I began to move one foot at a time, each one felt like I was dragging a massive boulder. It was harder than I’d like to admit, but Angie was surprised at how far I actually walked, having been in a bed for so many days. She helped me return to the bed, and as it was the end of her shift, she looked at me and said, “I’m back on Thursday, but I don’t want to see you.” My response was quick, “I am grateful for you, but I don’t want to see you either!”
When everything doesn’t go as planned
LIFE LESSON #6: Things may not always go the way you plan. You have to be willing to adapt.
Wednesday morning I woke up excited, ready to go home. The nurse came over to check my vitals. Oxygen? Great! Fever? None! Blood Pressure? Good! Heart Rate? High!
Wait. That last one wasn’t a good thing. My resting heart rate was around 132, and the nurse said it could be due to a variety of things, including anxiety to go home. There was no doubt in my mind that it was the anxiety. The team said they were going to run some tests and monitor me. I told them even if it meant having to go home late in the evening, I really would like to go home that day.
My vitals were monitored all day. An EKG that afternoon came back normal. They gave me a low-dose beta blocker that evening which brought my heart rate down to around 120, which still was high. I sat and listened to several albums of music recorded by eVoco Voice Collective (I’m very thankful everything was up on Apple Music) hoping that just listening to music with my eyes closed would calm me. I asked nurses to come over several times to check my vitals to see if it was going down, but no luck. By late evening, it was becoming more of a realization that I wasn’t getting out that day. There was a good hour where I just sat with my head in my hands trying to see the positive of getting out very soon, but there were a few moments of tears where I felt like I mentally could not hold it together anymore.
I made a plea to the nurse who came on for the night shift. When she came back with my medication at 10:30PM, she said the doctor wanted me to be monitored one more night because of my heart rate being high all day, but notes were made in my chart that I would be released the next day.
I woke up Thursday morning, they took more blood, took my vitals, and everything was great. My heart rate was now down to 95. Around 7:30am, a resident doctor who I had not met before came to visit me, said everything looked great and hopefully I could get out by the end of the day. I informed him of the promise that was made the night before, and he said they would work on it. Now I know my next comment was a bit pushy, but I did say “I’d like to be discharged by lunch.” He said he had to talk to the attending when he gets in at 9AM, but he will try to make that happen.
About 9AM, I see Angie, and she looks at me and says “why are you still here? I’m going to get you out by the end of my shift.” At this point, a doctor who I had seen throughout my stay came by and had a look on her face which didn’t excite me.
Doctor: “We want to run a CAT scan of your chest to make sure there are no blood clots. It’s the last possible thing we can think of which might be causing your high heart rate and we just want to rule it out.”
Me: “Well, you’ll get it done by noon, right?”
Doctor: “We have to order the test and it’ll take some time to get it done and then read the results.”
Me: “So by noon. Great.”
Angie: “I’m going to check your vitals.”
First, I’m not sure why they thought taking my vitals after telling me this news was a great idea, because of course my heart rate jumped back up to 130. Second, while I was polite in my statements, I reflect that I shouldn’t have been pushy. But the doctor and the nurse both recognized how long I had been there, had been promised to be discharged, and understood why I was being pushy. They both agreed that they would push to get the test done as soon as possible for me and lay some pressure on the department.
Later that morning, Angie came over to give me a bigger IV for when they do the CAT scan. I learned that her son is a music teacher, and I knew both his college and high school choir directors. We chatted a bit about his career and mine, and how the world is truly very small.
My desired timeline didn’t hold up, but I know they pushed to get things done. Around noon I went for the CAT scan. There were moments I had to hold my breath which proved rather difficult, but when you know that a movement will force a redo on the scan, you put a lot of mental energy into making sure you don’t cough. And of course, nailed it on the first shot. We were in and out rather quickly.
About 1:30 Angie comes over to me and hands me a piece of paper and says “start reading this.” It was my discharge papers. I could have cried. I read every word on every page. She came over, took my IVs out, explained everything and answered my questions. By the way, there were no blood clots. Jared 1, Blood Clots 0.
They called transport to wheel me out, but for some reason my call kept getting lost or my transport didn’t know where to go. They were supposed to get me at 2:45, and several people who had been called for after me got picked up before me, but at 4:00, they came for me. He wheeled me out, and the sunlight and fresh air never felt so good. I picked up my car keys, and my uncle dropped off my mother, who drove me home in my car.
After the hospital
I’m happy to be home and continue recovering. I’m on a 14 day quarantine at home. I still have a cough, and am told it will linger for some time. I lost just under 30lbs while I was in the hospital, which is not the way I wanted to lose it, but I view it as a positive. My lungs are not what they used to be, and singing is proving difficult now, but with daily practice I know it will improve.
I am thankful for:
- The entire staff at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset for the great care I received while I was in the hospital. Please be sure to appreciate and thank all of these first responders.
- My sisters, who through group text asked me many questions about how I was doing and what the doctors and nurses were saying, and then asked those questions again and again. They also kept many of my friends in the loop about my status.
- My parents, who like typical Jewish parents worried about me, and texted me often.
- The many friends who have reached out, while I was in the hospital, and since I’ve been home, to check on me and send positive thoughts. It is more appreciated than you can imagine.
- To the proof-readers of this very long story: my friend Devon Brady, and my friend and colleague Matthew Coleman.
- To those of you who are practicing social distancing. I know we all want to return to normal and see friends and family, but it’s not worth what I went through. Stay home now so we can return to normal sooner. If you need to go out, wear a mask to protect others. But please, just try to stay home.