A 73-year-old resident of Queens, New York fell ill with COVID-19 in February. It was far worse than his family expected.
When You Lose a Loved One to Coronavirus
Published: June 11, 2020
Narrator: In late February, the virus still seems like a distant threat to many New Yorkers, like Jessica Brown, who lives in Queens with her husband, three children and her father, George.
At age 73, keeping up with his three active grandchildren is not a problem.
Matthew Lebow: My grandfather’s personality was “one of the kids.” He was the first one to come up with doing something goofy or silly. He was at every sporting event. He was at every graduation, every spelling bee, every birthday.
Jessica Brown: Dad never knew what the adventure was going to be, but he never said no. He always just said, “There I am, kidnapped again.”
Narrator: The first week of March, George makes it to four of his granddaughter’s basketball gamesand a Broadway play, unaware that the coronavirus is all around himand could be contracted with astonishing ease.
Studies reveal it can remain infectious on some surfaces for up to three days or suspended in the air for a short time after an infected person coughs or breathes.
Lebow: When my grandfather first started to get sick, it was “You know, I have a stuffy nose but, you know, I’m okay. I’m hanging in there.”
We all just took it as if it was a common cold.
Narrator: Over the next three days, his symptoms rapidly get worse.
Brown: I said, “Dad, I think you have to go to a doctor. I just don’t like the way you look.” And he said, “Oh stop it. Stop it. Let’s see what happens when you get home from work.” Friday, I get home from work, he was shaking.
Lebow: My mom called me the next day, and that’s when she said, you know, “Pops isn’t looking good. You know, he’s starting to tremble.” And he just seems like he’s moving significantly slower than he was the day before.
Brown: So, I brought him into the hospital. They didn’t think that it was coronavirus, but they did take him and put them in isolation anyway, ’cause this was just the beginning of it. They gave my husband and myself a mask and asked us to please wait in the waiting room.
I saw him leave to go get a chest x-ray. I said, “How do you feel?” He looked better. They gave him some oxygen. He gave me a thumbs-up and told me to bring him some newspapers.
Narrator: Hours later, George is taken to the I.C.U. and diagnosed with COVID-19.
The liaison between the critical care team and his family is veteran palliative care doctor, Alice Beal.
Alice Beal: This is somewhat reminiscent of the AIDS crisis, in the fear that people have, but this is much more contagious than AIDS ever was. And it’s changed how we practice medicine. We touch, we examine, we listen. In this pandemic, I don’t even get to see my patients. I don’t even get to talk to many of them.
Narrator: That is certainly true for George, who, like many coronavirus patients, is struggling to breathe.
In healthy lungs, tiny air sacs deliver oxygen to blood vessels. But as the virus kills cells and the immune system fights back, inflammation results, filling the lungs with fluid and debris, blocking the flow of oxygen.
Galit Alter: What happens to some of these individuals that go down this severe path is, is they begin to make this massive burst of inflammatory molecules that we call the “cytokine storm.” Now, once that signal or that alarm goes off in the body, all kinds of other immune cells that we have in our system start to swarm in. That then basically sends the immune system into this incredible disarray.
Nahid Bhadelia: Your own immune system then becomes an enemy to your body. So, in that combination of both the direct damage that the virus does and the inflammation that comes from the immune system overreacting to the virus, you get a scenario where people start to have trouble breathing.
Narrator: Many patients, like George, end up needing a mechanical ventilator to do their breathing for them.
Lebow: Throughout the night, he started showing symptoms, and they had to put him on a vent. And once they said that they put him on a vent, I just knew that it wasn’t good.
Beal: It was such a shock to his daughter that when I called her, she just couldn’t understand how this could happen. I told her this is what this disease does.
Brown: She said that many things are going on in Dad’s body right now. His enzymes are low, and it’s showing that he may be having a massive heart attack.
Beal: She wanted to come in. She desperately wanted to come, and she said, “I won’t even bring my kids, just me.” And I said, “No, it’s just too unsafe.” No families are allowed in the hospitals at all, anywhere.
Brown: Fifteen minutes later, I called her back, and I said, “Please, we need closure.” And she said, “You hold on, you give me 10 minutes and gather up your troops, and we are going to figure something out.”
Beal: There are no phones in the rooms in the I.C.U., and he didn’t have a smart phone. One of my residents figured out we could hook the intercom up to a speaker phone. It wouldn’t be private, but the family could say goodbye.
Lebow: My whole family was together in our kitchen, and our dog, Charlie, and she had us go on speaker phone, over an intercom, into my grandfather’s room.
Brown: And all five of us were able to say our goodbyes to my dad, obviously, through a lot of tears and crying. And that was the closure that we needed. He heard us. He heard us say goodbye.
Lebow: Seeing these people going to the hospital alone and not being able to bring their loved ones and have no one there. I think that everyone hearing it, for the healthcare professionals and for the patients there, that it would give a sense of hope. And “Yes, you’re in the hospital, you’re alone, but the entire world is thinking about you and praying for you to pull through and, you know, get through this.”
Directed and Produced by: Sarah Holt
Edited by: Ralph Avellino, Ryan Shepheard, Michael H. Amundson
Digital Producer: Sukee Bennett
© 2020 WGBH Educational Foundation