Toni Kessel said she remained grateful for her husband, William, and considers herself fortunate he retired in December. She also appreciates her boss, County Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, for her continual support. But most of all, Kessel said, she’s thankful she’s alive.
A victim of Covid-19, Kessel, 60, first experienced symptoms on Christmas day. Three days later she was bedridden in her Glen Cove home, with a temperature of 104 and the worst headache she had ever experienced. For eight days her health spiraled downward, and she was unable to get out of bed. She remembers little, except that her husband encouraged her to drink Gatorade.
Finally, William rushed his wife to Glen Cove Hospital, where doctors said she was severely dehydrated, and she was diagnosed with pneumonia and Covid-19. She remained in the Covid ward for a week, where she was given oxygen but was not put on a ventilator. Her husband and their two adult daughters, Kimberly and Brittany, also came down with the virus, but their symptoms weren’t nearly as severe as Toni’s.
“In the Covid ward, you’re by yourself,” she recounted. “I didn’t know what was going on. It’s amazing that this little virus can do so much damage to people.”
Two months have passed since her hospitalization, yet Kessel said she continues to have symptoms that include headaches, exhaustion, heart palpitations and body aches. She is unable to return to work, and, she said, her life is difficult.
A year ago on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the Covid -19 outbreak was a global pandemic. Since then, more than half a million people in the United States have succumbed to the virus, for which there remains no cure.
When the virus was first reported early last year, doctors and nurses were learning about it, said Kerri Scanlon, a registered nurse and GCH’s executive director. They were bewildered, unable to prevent so many people from dying, she said.
GCH’s first Covid patient
Lucianne Fenza, 33, a nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit, was assigned to its first Covid patient. “I remember being told, ‘Luci, he’s positive,’ and I wondered what that meant for me and my family,” she said. “There were so many unknowns then. We didn’t think he would make it.”
But the patient survived. “He was one of our successes,” said Fenza, who lives in Northport. “When he came back to our rehab he thanked us all, he wanted us to know that he heard us, even when sedated. He thanked us for giving him a second chance on life.”
What was most important to her, Fenza said, was to keep Covid-19 patients off ventilators, because only 10 percent of those who were put on them survived. Covid-19 attacks the lungs, she said. When patients are put on one it is easy for them to get tears in their lungs because it is difficult for them to synchronize their breathing with the ventilator.
To avoid the ventilator, it’s important for patients to be calm. Fenza said she decided to get creative. To gain a patient’s attention, she would dance while holding up signs with words of encouragement. She told them to keep moving from side to side so “the Covid would not settle.” Fenza was determined to do anything to help them survive, she said, but it all took a personal toll.
“I could see their fear,” she said. “I felt helpless after a while.”
Fenza remembered how hard it was to lose her first Covid-19 patient. He was young, she said, with a wife and an autistic son who also had Covid, but didn’t need to be hospitalized. No matter what the doctors tried, the man was unresponsive.
“We all felt it when he died,” she said. “We tried so hard to keep him alive. After the doctor pronounced him, we gathered in a circle for a moment of silence and then cried together.”
A year later, Fenza has received her Covid-19 vaccine, and said she feels more comfortable working and confident she is safe.
As the number of Covid patients steadily increased, Scanlon said, she had to take charge, which was her job, but this experience was different. She couldn’t handle it alone. “This was a marathon, and I had to learn how to manage it and hand the baton to the next person,” she said, adding that the pressure was tremendous. “At the end of the day, I could not let that baton drop.”
Teamwork was essential, Scanlon explained, with professional collaboration more important than ever. Doctors, nurses, care managers and respiratory therapists all needed to communicate to give Covid-19 patients the best chance to survive.
Kristen Geissinger, 27, GCH’s emergency room managing nurse, agreed that teamwork was vital, because staffers knew better than anyone else what their colleagues were going through. “But telling family members they couldn’t come in, couldn’t see their mom or dad, was the hardest part,” she said. “The families didn’t understand, and the patients didn’t either. When you’re sick, you want your family with you.”
‘We couldn’t let them . . . say goodbye’
One of her most painful memories is of two women who were nurses. One had quit her job to take care of her father, who was dying of Covid at GCH. “We couldn’t let them come in to say goodbye,” Geissinger said. “I felt awful. The daughter quit her job to make sure her father didn’t get it from her, and he got it anyway.”
The experience made Geissinger think more about her own father, who she worried might catch the virus from her. They both live in Centerport, had always been close, and she lived next door. She made the difficult decision not to see her father for the entire month of March, and as it turned out, she remained isolated from him until May.
Geissinger contacted the virus a week before Easter, when what began as a bad fever developed into debilitating weakness. She stayed in her bedroom for a week, taking vitamin C and doing everything she told her patients to do.
She talked to her father on the phone every day, but their separation was difficult. “It was my first Easter that I didn’t see him,” she said.
Having the virus has been life-changing for Geissinger. “I honestly feel more of a need to communicate with the family members of patients than I used to,” she said. “It gets so busy in the ER, you can’t always come to the phone to speak to them. I make it more of a priority to talk to them now, to give them the updates they need.”
Scanlon learned from the experience that everyone, including her, had to care for themselves to get through the pandemic. What she said she continues to miss most is the human contact. “In health care, we’re very touchy feely people,” she said. “The hardest thing is not to be able to do this.”
Having Covid has affected Kessel emotionally, she said. Now, when she entering a crowded supermarket, she has to fight off panic. And she still can’t believe that she got infected with the virus.
“It takes you back,” she said. “I’m old now. I find that I think more of my future. I wonder how long I want to work.”
For Fenza’s children, ages 4½ and 2, Covid is a part of their lives. “My son loves dressing up,” she said, “so he likes to wear a surgical mask. He thinks he’s Spider-Man. As for my daughter, she says little but now says, ‘Mask, mask.’”