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.
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.
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.