I lie on a stretcher, thinking of my two sons. They are both healthy, in Philadelphia and Manhattan. Seven months before, we suffered through the death of their mother — my wife of 37 years. She wanted to live so badly. After an 18-month battle with cancer, she left us.
The three of us have gotten closer since her death, but I know I am no replacement. After 12 days of living with the coronavirus, I admitted myself to the Emergency Department.
I know too much about this illness. I know that my oxygen saturation plummeting the night before is a sign of advanced pulmonary disease with COVID-19 infection. I know that I might need a mechanical ventilator — I have given this therapy to strangers hundreds of times.
For 12 days I lived with burning lungs, malaise, no appetite and little gusto for life. One night, my oxygen saturation dipped. The next morning, I called my colleagues for help.
On March 9, the pandemic still seemed far away. Nobody had gotten ill yet. I attended the last large emergency management system meeting of the Northwell health system in Manhasset, New York, where we discussed supply procurement and personnel coverage for the coming pandemic. I drove back to my office in the Cohen Children’s Medical Centre in nearby New Hyde Park.
That afternoon, I met twice with a group of colleagues. I was feeling so cold. Over the next hour, I became colder with shaky chills. My assistant, who is like a big sister to me, told me to go home immediately. I drove home, febrile and achy. I slept for 15 hours.
The next morning, still feeling fluish, I was tested at an urgent care centre. The results returned positive that afternoon.
The mortality risks
As a 66-year-old, I knew the mortality risks. On Friday, I was taken over by coronavirus malaise. Malaise is a term used by health care workers, but I didn’t fully understand it until I experienced it in my body. Malaise forces you onto the couch or bed, tells you you’re not hungry. The idea of cooking became overwhelming. I lost interest in even cleaning up.
I am fortunate to have so many close friends and relatives in the area. Their texts and phone calls were a lifeline. Medically, I knew there was no reason to go to the hospital. My vital signs and oxygen levels were fine. I monitored myself a few times a day, but I did realise, in the fog that took over, that I wasn’t eating or drinking much. Even rewarming an already prepared meal became a major chore.
For 12 days I lived with burning lungs, malaise, no appetite and little gusto for life. One night, my oxygen saturation dipped. The next morning, I called my colleagues for help. An ambulance arrived. We drove from my home in New Rochelle, New York, to North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
The infectious disease doctor ordered a lung CT scan, and the results showed severe, bilateral disease. Lying there, thinking about my future (or lack of one), I made three phone calls. I called both of my sons separately, to tell them how sick I’ve become, what the doctors and I were worried about. I couldn’t guarantee them that I would live through the weekend. The third call I made is to my close friend, a personal attorney, to ensure that everything would be in order if I died.
That afternoon, I stabilised with no further degradation of my oxygen saturation levels. On oxygen, I felt more secure in my breathing. I remained on oxygen and was transferred to a “Covid floor” where I stayed for six days. I began to enjoy my surroundings. My lungs started to burn less, and my cough subsided.
My caretakers were amazing, though I don’t know what any of them look like; they were always masked when I saw them. I am indebted to the nurses who helped me, allowing me to feel like a real person and maintain some dignity.
I have been home now for 13 days. Each day I feel a little bit stronger and more like myself. My youngest son is staying and cooking for me and we FaceTime with my older son in Philadelphia every day. Death has never felt so close and so far away in the same breath.
— Charles L. Schleien is the Philip Lanzkowsky professor and chair of paediatrics at the Barbara & Donald Zucker School of Medicine of Hofstra/Northwell and senior vice president of Paediatric Services and Cohen Children’s Medical Centre.