Nearly two dozen survivors, family members and hospital workers on Monday attended a COVID-19 support group meeting at LIJ Valley Stream, sharing stories of how the virus affected their lives and changed their outlook on faith, friends and family. Credit: Newsday / Reece T. Williams/Reece T. Williams

As doctors at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital prepared to put Larry Talbert into a medically induced coma following a COVID-19 diagnosis in April 2020, the Cambria Heights deacon said a simple prayer to God.

"I said, 'God, my life is in your hands,' " Talbert, 65, recalled Monday. "And then I told the ER physician, 'Let's do what we have to do.' If I was going to die, and God would take me home, or he was going to bring me through, as long as I was in his hands, I was going to be all right."

More than 19 months later, Talbert returned to the Valley Stream hospital — free of COVID but still struggling with its long-term symptoms — to lead the inaugural meeting of a COVID support group.

Nearly two-dozen survivors, family members and hospital workers attended the meeting, sharing stories of how the virus affected their lives and changed their outlook on faith, friends and family.

"Each and every one of us have been affected," said Talbert, a special police officer for the New York State Office of Mental Health. "Each and every one of us has a story to tell."

Michelle Rossetti, director of patient and family experience at LIJ Valley Stream, said meetings will occur at 11 a.m. on the first Monday of every month and are open to anyone.

"You don't have to have had COVID," Rossetti said. "If you feel impacted, which we all were, you are welcome to join. It's open to staff, visitors and the community."

Dianne Mack, who attends Talbert's church in Harlem where she lives, recalled how she was gripped with both physical pain and emotional anxiety after her COVID-19 diagnosis in March 2020. Even after she recovered, friends did not want to visit for fear that they, too, would contract the virus.

She eventually formed a virtual support group where survivors could compare notes and discuss their struggles with those who have walked in their shoes.

"It's a journey in stages," said Mack, who still struggles with long-COVID symptoms. "We have survived the acute stage [of the virus]. We are in recovery but we haven't fully overcome."

Melody Sidberry, also of Harlem, said her post-COVID fatigue was so bad that she left her job at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan so that she would have the energy to help take care of her granddaughter.

"It becomes so heavy because, with COVID, there's just so much uncertainty," Sidberry said.

Talbert was brought to LIJ Valley Stream after suffering through days of labored breathing, high fever and lack of sleep and appetite. He was placed in a medically induced coma, intubated and put on a ventilator for nearly a month.

During that time, Talbert said he vividly recalls the sounds of hospital machines beeping in his room and the voices of his nurses and doctors. Roughly two weeks after he was brought out of the coma, Talbert had a setback.

While on the phone with his wife of six years, Diana Talbert, he struggled to breathe and felt like he was choking. Then his heart started pounding and he felt severe pain moving from his shoulder to his arm.

"I just knew I was going to die," Larry Talbert recalled. " … I was literally preparing myself to have a heart attack."

His doctor was ready to put him back into a coma and stepped out of the room to call Diana. But a nurse recommended they first try an oxygen bypass machine to restore Talbert's breathing. The move paid off and within minutes his heart rate stabilized and his breathing returned.

Talbert would remain on oxygen for several months, even after his release from the hospital.

While he continues to struggle with lack of energy and bouts of fatigue, Talbert is grateful for a second chance at life and wants to create a safe space where others can also begin to heal.

"My message is 'You are not alone. There are people here who want to hear your story that can help you,' " he said. "This is not the end."

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