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Much has been written of the warning signs, symptoms and dangers of COVID-19. But what is it like to have the coronavirus? Several sufferers who shared their experiences living through infections are now recovered. They reflect on their life-changing ordeals in this fourth installment of Carolyn Presutti's series chronicling life with COVID-19.
The first installment can be read here.
The second installment can be read here.
The third installment can be read here.
53 years old
No underlying health conditions
Carlos Gavidia's 21-meter yacht is named SISU, a Finnish term signifying grit and stoic determination - the very qualities Carlos relied on to win his battle with COVID-19. The boat flies a "Trump 2020" flag, angering some of his Florida neighbors.
Gavidia went to great lengths last month to acquire two drugs President Donald Trump has touted for treating COVID-19 - hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.
He attributes his recovery to the medicines, he told VOA. Once he was well, Gavidia passed on his remaining medication to others with the coronavirus.
Multiple trials are underway testing the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, typically used as an anti-malarial drug and by lupus sufferers. It remains unproven as a treatment for COVID-19.
"I don't know why they say it doesn't work, because it does," Gavidia said, and added that the people who got his leftover medication also saw rapid improvements.
Grateful that he is well, Gavidia tried to donate his antibody-rich plasma to a New York hospital to treat other patients. But the private flight to New York City was canceled when the pilots were informed that, upon their return from America's biggest COVID-19 hotspot, they'd be under a two-week mandatory quarantine.
In Florida, no one would take Gavidia's plasma until he tested negative for the virus. Undaunted, Gavidia and his 21-year old son, Casen, drove to a drive-thru express test site in West Palm Beach, Florida.
'Hard to be a donor'
Gavidia said getting an appointment for the test took hours, but the testing site was well organized and run efficiently by the National Guard.
Now he has a five-day wait for the test result which, if negative, will allow him to give plasma to a blood bank for distribution to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Gavidia thinks more recovered coronavirus patients would give blood if the process were streamlined.
"Really, they you know, these places that take the blood, the plasma, they should really offer the test," he said. "And you know, I don't mind paying for it. It's just makes it very inconvenient and hard, hard to be a donor when it's not easy to get tested."
Gavidia added, "So we're trying. We're getting it done slowly but surely."
Meanwhile, Gavidia's family of four - all symptom-free - has a newfound appreciation for activities they once took for granted: swimming, fishing, grilling Peruvian chicken and playing with a puppy.
Many have criticized President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis, but not Gavidia. While he may acquiesce to his neighbors' wishes to remove the Trump flag from his yacht, he plans to do something bigger and bolder - paint the vessel's tender with an American flag and rename it, in big white letters: "Trump."
27 years old
Full-time law clerk/Part-time law student
No underlying health conditions
29 years old
Technical recruiting manager
No underlying health conditions
'I'm dead - why do I have oxygen levels?'
Francis Wilson has incomplete memories from the 10 days he lay in a coma, kept alive by a ventilator. But he does remember thinking he was dead. Twice.
Now the young law clerk is "loving life" since returning to his Virginia apartment. He spent recent days wearing a mask and "sorting through emotional stuff."
Wilson's roommates, who were also ill and under home quarantine, are all recovered, including Zack Armstrong, who told VOA of a celebration when Wilson was finally able to leave his bedroom without a protective face mask.
"It's been refreshing just to be back and around people I know," Armstrong said. "We had a celebration this morning because today's his first day of not having to wear the mask around the house. So he came up this morning. Yay! No mask. It's a great feeling."
'You were teetering right at the edge'
Wilson is piecing together what happened in the hospital by texting nurses who helped keep him alive. His fragmented memories include a nurse holding a phone to his ear so his family could say goodbye when death seemed imminent. He recalls someone saying "Francis, you need to pull through this. We love you."
Some of his most vivid memories stem from what he describes as an out-of-body experience in which he witnessed what was happening around him in the hospital room, a vision that made him think he'd died. In fact, Wilson's coronavirus-ravaged lungs were just barely functioning.
"I remember hearing 'This is Francis Wilson, his oxygen levels are at about 38 percent. We will need to monitor him.' And I remember being kind of confused by that. I was like, 'I'm dead - why do I have oxygen levels?' But I just assumed it was like residual oxygen levels in my blood," he recalled.
"I spoke with a nurse [after coming out of the coma] and she said, 'You know, right around that time, your oxygen levels got down to critically low places,'" Wilson adds. "And I was like, 'Well, what does that mean?' She said, 'You know, for somebody your age, your body's able to compensate, you can get down to about like 30 to 35% before you flatline. And you were teetering right at the edge.'"
Young doesn't mean 'free and clear'
Both Wilson and Armstrong are in their 20s. COVID-19 surprised them. When the first cases were reported in America, Armstrong said, he wasn't concerned. Now he warns everyone that "just because you're young and healthy doesn't mean that you're free and clear."
Wilson says he shared his story with VOA to help others understand that the coronavirus can be deadly for all age groups.
"On one hand, I'm an outlier, in that it hit me as hard as it did. On the other hand, I fit cleanly into that young healthy survivor statistic - and I don't want people to get cavalier," Wilson said, adding that if his cautionary tale helps "one person out there, that it was all worth it."
Wilson slept well the first night back in his own bed. Nearby, his hedgehog, named Penny, lulled him to sleep by running on her exercise wheel. He also has a small pet snake, named Carlito - something Armstrong didn't know about until Wilson's absence, during which time the apartment joined forces to disinfect his room.
"Carlito is not out here right now," Wilson said in a Zoom interview with VOA, "because Zack is not the biggest fan of snakes ... sorry, Zack."
"I was caught by surprise," Zack said. "I'm not excited about it. Apparently it's a very small snake."
What was missed and what was gained
Wanting to take no risks with his family's health, Wilson has yet to see them in person. He missed his mom's and his sister's birthdays. They are considering having a family dinner via video link. He looks forward to regaining strength.
Armstrong, meanwhile, wants to get the coronavirus antibody test to see if he can help COVID-19 patients in his area - "maybe grocery shopping or something for them" - without worrying about getting sick again.
Note: Chicago-area resident Connie Lambert, who ultimately tested negative for the coronavirus, continues to weigh whether to seek medical treatment for her non-COVID-19 illness.