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They Survived: Beating COVID-19 After 70

Four adults in their 70s and 80s share how they endured severe cases of the deadly virus

spinner image collage of covid survivors judith hunt georgene stephens ronald hill and paul levine
Clockwise from top left: Judith Hunt, Georgene Stephens (with her husband Gerry), Ronald Hill and Paul Levine

COVID-19 can be dangerous for anyone, but 80 percent of COVID-related deaths have been reported in people over age 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and older adults are also more likely to require hospitalization and potentially be put on a ventilator. But the reasons some older adults get very sick and others don't is still a mystery, says Linda DeCherrie, M.D., professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “While we do know that people with underlying heart and lung problems such as pulmonary disease, asthma or high blood pressure are at higher risk for complications, there's still a lot about the disease we're just finding out now,” she notes. Here, four men and women age 70 and over share their experiences with surviving severe cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Paul Levine, 86, New York City

"Two months later, I'm still short of breath standing up."

When I first began experiencing tremendous fatigue and shortness of breath, in mid-March, my first fear wasn't that I had come down with COVID-19: It was that I was having a relapse of CLL [chronic lymphocytic leukemia], the blood cancer I'd been successfully treated for in 2006. But when I called my oncologist, he asked me a strange question: How did my food taste? When I told him everything tastes terrible, he instructed me to go the hospital. My son drove me to Mount Sinai West in New York City, where I tested positive for COVID-19.

spinner image paul levine at home looking at the camera
Courtesy Paul Levine

I don't remember much after being admitted. I know I had a high fever, and I wasn't coherent. A couple days later, when my temperature came down, they sent me home. Three days later, I fell in the bathroom and was so weak I couldn't stand up. My wife, Sondra, called 911 and the ambulance brought me to Mount Sinai East, where I was put on oxygen and IV fluids.

It was weird. As an 86-year-old cancer survivor with diabetes, death was already something always in the back of my mind before the virus arrived. About a year earlier, I'd pulled together a will and some other estate planning, and I kept wondering if I'd put it together right because I didn't want to leave a mess behind for everyone. With COVID-19, I really felt like I wanted to die. I didn't sleep, and I didn't want to eat. All I wanted was to go home and be with Sondra. She called several times a day, but I was so out of it I don't even remember speaking with her.

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By the time they discharged me from the hospital two weeks later, I weighed 127 pounds. Mount Sinai has a visiting nurse program, so they sent someone to check on me three days a week. Sondra cooked all my favorite foods — mushroom and barley soup, short ribs — but it took a while to get my appetite back. Even today, more than two months later, I still haven't fully recovered. I'm on oxygen, and even just standing up I experience shortness of breath. Sondra and I take daily walks, but I need to rest after just several blocks. The irony is my wife and I think I contracted the virus at the gym, which was the only place where I would go after starting to self-isolate at home in early March.

We both underwent antibody testing and we both had them, which suggests that Sondra also came down with the disease but was asymptomatic. This disease is so puzzling, and worrisome. There's so much we still don't know about it, including why some of us experience such severe symptoms we need to be hospitalized, while others have only mild cases, or no signs of the virus at all. I see everyone around me getting impatient and wanting to open up the city immediately. We need to take it slowly.

Georgene Stephens, 70, Clarksville, Maryland

"The hardest thing about COVID-19 was not being able to hold my husband's hand while he was on the ventilator."

The hardest thing for me about COVID-19 wasn't battling the virus myself — although that truly was a nightmare. It was the fact that I couldn't hold my husband Gerry's hand as he lay in the ICU at Johns Hopkins [hospital], sedated and on a ventilator. It was the first time I'd been separated from him for more than a few days during our entire 50-year marriage.

spinner image gerry and georgene stpehens
Courtesy Georgene Stephens

Our ordeal began on Tuesday, March 10, when we both came down with a cough and a fever. A week later I was feeling better, but Gerry was struggling to breathe. (Although we are both 70 and in good health, Gerry does have asthma.) We went to a local hospital, where they tested us both for COVID-19. Gerry was in such bad shape they decided to intubate him and take him by ambulance to Johns Hopkins. They wouldn't even let me say goodbye in person. I had to wave at him through a hospital window.

Since I felt fine, I was sent home. But two days later, very early in the morning, I began having a lot of trouble breathing. Four years earlier, I'd had a pulmonary embolism, and I had the exact same symptoms: extreme shortness of breath, and so dizzy and lightheaded I couldn't even stand up. Everything around me began going gray, and I knew I had only minutes before I'd lose consciousness. I called 911 but told them I felt so weak I didn't even think I could get up to unlock the front door. They were able to get a key from my neighbor. The first thing they did was check my oxygen, which was dangerously low. They gave me some immediately, and by the time they got me to our local hospital I began feeling better.

When I got to the emergency room, the physicians there told me I'd also tested positive for COVID-19 and thus needed to be transferred immediately to Johns Hopkins, where Gerry was, since they weren't equipped to take COVID patients at their own hospital. Once there, I thankfully was able to meet Brian Garibaldi, M.D., the pulmonologist and critical care specialist taking care of my husband. I had been worried sick about Gerry as I was only able to get brief phone updates from hospital staff. Brian was able to sit with me and explain everything. I stayed on oxygen for about 10 hours, and then they kept me overnight, to see how I did without it. The next morning, they sent me home.

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I was terrified to go home alone. My three adult children, who live all over the country, were also very concerned for me. My son was frantically calling everywhere to try to get home health care, but this was in the beginning of the pandemic, and he couldn't get anyone to come to our house. Thankfully, all my neighbors stepped up and took care of me. I just had to text one of them, and I'd have what I wanted in 10 minutes on my front porch.

I felt much better by the time I got home, but I was definitely not myself. I had stomach upset for a couple weeks and didn't want to eat because I'd lost my sense of taste and smell. I was so worried about Gerry it felt like there was a bowling ball in the middle of my chest, which I attributed to anxiety. I couldn't leave the house, because I was quarantined, but I paced everywhere. Whenever anyone called me, I would walk around the house. I must have put in around 10,000 steps on my pedometer every day. I was so tense, it seemed impossible to sit still.

Gerry was on a ventilator for over two weeks. When he returned home on April 8, I was shocked. He'd lost 35 pounds and could hardly walk. All I wanted to do was sit with him on the couch and hold his hand, but we were told we had to isolate from each other for 14 days to prevent transmission of any sort of illness. I felt well enough to cook and otherwise take care of him at that point, but, thankfully, Hopkins had a home care team that checked in on us and provided Gerry with physical therapy.

I don't want anyone to go through what Gerry and I did. When people learn we both recovered from COVID-19, they tell us we are golden and we can go anywhere. But we have no desire to travel or go out to restaurants. We could become reinfected, for one. But we also want everyone to realize how serious and deadly this disease is. We were supposed to throw a huge 50th anniversary bash this August. Instead, we're just celebrating the two of us surviving COVID and staying together.

Ronald Hill, 71, Fresno, California

"The most brutal part of the recovery comes when you're taken off the ventilator."

When I first came down with symptoms of COVID-19, my attitude was I could push through it on my own. Was I wrong! I came down with the virus in mid-March, after attending a family funeral in Los Angeles where a couple of cousins had been infected with COVID but weren't yet showing symptoms. A few days later, I began running a high fever. I called my doctor, who sent me for X-rays and lab tests. It turns out I had pneumonia — although I wasn't yet having trouble breathing — and was positive for COVID-19.

spinner image ronald hill waves to the camera from a hospital gurney flanked by his wife debbie and hospital staff
Courtesy Ronald Hill

I was convinced I could fight it at home with antibiotics and fluids. But two days after my diagnosis, when I wasn't eating or drinking, my wife, Debbie, insisted on calling an ambulance. I remember very little about that trip, but apparently as soon as I got to the hospital I was placed in the ICU and put on a ventilator as my pneumonia was rapidly spreading through my lungs. I stayed on one for 29 days.

My very first memory upon waking up was hearing Debbie's voice on the phone. I was very confused. I thought I was still in Los Angeles, not Fresno. I didn't know who Debbie was, I didn't know where I was and I didn't remember that I had COVID-19. It also turns out I'd had a small stroke on the ventilator, which may also have impacted my memory.

Everyone just assumes that when you're taken off the ventilator after COVID-19, that's it, and you can go home. The truth is the recovery is brutal. I couldn't walk or stand, and my arms were like rubber. I'd lost so much weight that one of the male nurses could easily pick me up and carry me when I had to go to the bathroom.

I stayed in the hospital for two weeks, and then spent two weeks at rehab, where the only time I could see my wife was to wave at her through a glass window. It was so painful to see how hard it was for her. She later told me that when I was admitted, all she wanted to do is camp out in the parking lot of Kaiser Permanente, but because she'd been exposed to the virus she had to quarantine for two weeks at home.

When I finally did go home, I was greeted by a surprise homecoming car parade where I got to see my four daughters and two sons, 24 grandchildren and two great-grandkids from a distance. But my recovery hasn't been easy. Debbie and I walk every day, and I return to Kaiser for physical and occupational therapy twice a week. I'm still recovering from nerve damage in my hands that I got from lying on the ventilator in the ICU.

People think this is a disease that affects only people who are at high risk for the disease, but up until this I've always been very active and healthy. I rarely even caught a cold, but this took over my lungs like a tornado. It could happen to anyone. Wear your masks.

Judith Hunt, 80, New York City

"This is not the flu. This is something that wants to kill you."

When I was wheeled out of Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital in New York City on July 7, it was my first time being released from either a hospital or rehab center in over six months. I had been admitted there at the end of January, when I fell and broke my right hip and femur. During my stay, tests revealed I had both an aortic aneurysm and small bowel obstruction, and required surgery for both. I was in the hospital still recuperating at the end of March when I developed a high fever and respiratory distress. On March 23, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. It's still a mystery as to how I became infected.

Everyone always asks me what it was like during that time. But my memory is pretty foggy. I told my nurse I was fine, only to walk out of the bathroom coughing and wheezing saying, “Please do not let me die” a day later. Every breath was pure agony, and I didn't know if I'd be able to draw another one. I remember hearing voices saying, “We need to put her on a ventilator” and thinking, Oh, good, I won't have to worry about breathing, before drifting off to sleep. When I woke up, the ventilator must have been put in, which was necessary but god-awful. I couldn't hear or speak, and felt like a turtle on its back in the hot sun. When I had enough strength at times to force my voice out, I sounded like a robot.

On April 9, the ICU ran out of space and I was sent to a nursing home. At Mount Sinai, every single doctor, nurse, nurse's aide and housekeeping staffer were the most wonderful creatures God ever created. I had the most fabulous care — I couldn't have been treated better if I were a precious jewel. I never felt like just another patient in bed number 17. One of the nurses would talk to me and tell me to remember a happier time, when I traveled, to take my mind off of things. But at the nursing home, it was weird. People would come to the door and I'd try to motion them in, since I couldn't speak due to the ventilator, and they would turn around and scurry away. Later that month, I developed kidney failure and was sent back to the hospital, where I then came down with sepsis. It was like the hits just kept coming, one after the other. When I got sent back to the ICU, I got a standing ovation from the entire staff.

Finally, after a shorter spell on a trach tube, I was able to breathe on my own. But I still had weeks of recovery in front of me. At one point, it took three people to move me to the edge of the bed and help me stand up and take two steps. I began to have three hours of physical and occupational therapy every day, because I couldn't even do simple everyday activities like climbing stairs or putting on socks. I slowly made progress, until I could finally walk about 200 feet unassisted.

When I left the hospital in a wheelchair on July 7, the entire hallway was lined with my team of therapists. Each one gave me a piece of paper with a different challenge I'd overcome — like sepsis — and I'd tear it up. At the end, they decorated my wheelchair with a balloon and sparkling garland. When I got home, I bawled like a baby.

Now I'm back home with my elderly cat. My brother flew in from St. Louis for a few days, and I have an aide who comes a couple times a week to check on me. I also will keep doing physical and occupational therapy at home. The only time I leave my apartment is to work with my physical therapist outdoors.

I see photos of people out at lakes, parties and bars, and I'm incredulous. This is not the flu. This is something that wants to kill you. It saps your strength and makes you feel like you prefer to die. This disease is such an unknown quantity. I cannot understand why anyone would refuse to wear a mask. It's a pandemic!

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