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Former COVID-19 patients share their stories of survival

Jillian Raimondi of Bellport, a nurse at Long

Jillian Raimondi of Bellport, a nurse at Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue. Credit: Courtesy Jillian Raimondi

A Patchogue nurse. A seemingly healthy 33-year-old Huntington man. A public school teacher from Roslyn. A North Bellmore World War II veteran.

These Long Islanders, from diverse backgrounds, professions and age brackets, all share a common title: COVID-19 survivor. 

Their stories are all unique. Some suffered mild strains of the virus. Others were seemingly on death's door. All recovered, grateful to be spared from a disease that has claimed so many. Theirs are stories of perseverance, of faith and of love. 

Anthony Saylor

The odds were not in 93-year-old Anthony Saylor’s favor when he contracted COVID-19 last month. Nearly 40% of all coronavirus deaths in New York are among individuals 80 and older, according to the state Health Department.

The World War II Navy vet fought a high fever, bad cough, body aches and chills — almost exclusively at home in North Bellmore under the care of two of his daughters, both of whom also caught the virus.

But after a frightening few weeks, Saylor is now symptom-free — a recovery he attributes to faith and family.

“God has always been good to me,” Saylor said. “And my daughters were right there the whole time taking such good care of me. They were angels looking out for me.”

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Saylor was admitted to a hospital more than three weeks ago with what family members believed was a urinary tract infection. Despite his declining health, the family decided to treat Saylor at home, worried he would never leave the hospital and could potentially die alone.

“There was just no way we were allowing him to go through this alone,” said Cecilia D’Aquaro of North Bellmore, the youngest of Saylor’s eight children. “We couldn’t chance it.”

With Veterans Affairs doctors on call, D’Aquaro and her sister, Debbie Meyerowitz of Island Park — both of whom contracted mild cases of the virus — watched dutifully over their dad, providing him with medication, checking his vitals hourly, keeping him hydrated and feeding him Ensure.

For three days, she said, Saylor’s condition was touch-and-go, and they considered hospice care. The faith-oriented family, six of whom contracted the virus, prayed regularly.

D’Aquaro calls her father’s recovery “a miracle” that defies explanation.

“It was scary,” D’Aquaro said. “There were times that he was really bad. He said it was his love of family that got him through it.”

Saylor, who has 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, said he has little recollection of the past three weeks.

“All I can say is open your heart to one another because life is too short,” he said. “And keep fighting.”

Jillian Raimondi

For weeks, Jillian Raimondi worked on the front lines, a nurse caring for COVID-19 patients at Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue.

Then, like so many other health care providers, she too became a victim — and eventually a survivor — of the contagious virus.

Raimondi, 30, of Bellport, started to feel tightness in her chest on March 20. She woke up gasping for air, feeling that she was having a heart attack. An initial coronavirus test came back negative. When the symptoms worsened, she got tested again.

This time the results were positive.

"I was pretty bad," she said. "I could not hold down fluid. I was tired with a fever. It was hard to catch my breath, like breathing through a straw. It was hard to expand my lungs or my chest. It felt like something was stuck there and not coming out."

Raimondi, who lives with two immunocompromised parents, isolated herself in a hotel, leaving her room only to get tested or receive the results. Friends and family left food outside of her room or donated cash for delivery services.

The symptoms, she said, continued to worsen. Chills. Aches. A burning sensation in her chest, nose, ears and lips that cost her a sense of smell and taste. 

"I had periods of not breathing at night," she said. "I did not go to sleep for three days because I was scared I was going to get intubated or I wouldn't wake up."

Yet Raimondi says she is among the lucky ones. One of her patients died from the virus as did a fellow nurse at her hospital, Ali Dennis Guillermo, 44, of East Patchogue.

After more than two weeks on the sidelines, Raimondi returns to work Sunday, ready to care for those who are going through what she has endured. 

"I love to work and to care for people," she said. "It's all hands on deck and the fact that I am on the sidelines sucks. I want to be there. I am scared to go back but I want to be there. After two and a half weeks of quarantine I am ready to go back."

Geoffrey Sorensen

Geoffrey Sorensen of Huntington thought he had done everything right.

During a trip to Washington, D.C., in early March to watch the Hofstra men's basketball team compete in the Colonial Athletic Association Men's Basketball Championship — before the introduction of social distancing — Sorensen, 33, was the one distributing Purell to his friends and advising them to constantly wash their hands.

Only days later, though, Sorensen would test positive for COVID-19, on the same day that the virus claimed the life of his grandmother, Gerda Garbatzky, believed to be Suffolk's third fatality from coronavirus. Geoffrey's mother, Michelle Sorensen, also contracted the virus.

"I learned that it could affect anyone," Sorensen said. "I thought I was being careful and I still got it."

Sorensen, the coordinator at an audiovisual company in Huntington, considers himself fortunate. His case of COVID-19 was extremely mild, similar to a bad cold with a lingering cough, chest pressure and shortness of breath. 

In comparison, his grandmother first showed symptoms on March 12 and died four days later. The state's stay-at-home guidelines meant that the family was forced to mourn in isolation, further amplifying their grief.

"It's so surreal that I don't have the proper vocabulary for this," said Sorensen, who like many COVID-19 survivors is being tested to see if his plasma can help sicker coronavirus patients. "My grandmother passed away as part of this global story. And then the fact we could not be together. It's just crazy."

Stacey Wink

After two weeks of being homebound with the coronavirus, Stacey Wink has started to appreciate the small things. 

Getting out of bed without pain. Virtual calls with friends. Takeout food now that her taste buds have returned. A Zoom Passover seder with family.

"Right now I just feel very lucky that I am not as bad as many others," said Wink, 52, of Roslyn, a teacher at Great Neck South Middle School. "I did not need to go to the hospital. I wasn't alone."

Wink and her husband, Wayne, 53, the North Hempstead Town clerk, each started to feel ill around March 24. Stacey Wink tested positive but the walk-in clinic declined to test her husband, telling the couple to assume he, too, was positive for the virus.

Stacey Wink took the brunt of it, suffering through a 102-degree fever, a lack of energy and appetite, and a persistent cough. Wayne Wink said he had a more mild strain, while their daughter, Jennifer, is asymptomatic.

Through it all, Stacey Wink said she continued remote teaching, turned off the news and attempted to focus attention on recovering.

"The best thing is to be positive and do as much as you can," she said. "Keeping a normal routine kept me going."


 

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