THE YEAR OF COVID: Three survivors share their journeys back from the edge

COVID-19 survivors Brenda and Steve Shaw are shown in their Rotterdam home Friday
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COVID-19 survivors Brenda and Steve Shaw are shown in their Rotterdam home Friday

A year ago Monday, the first New Yorker was confirmed infected with COVID-19.

In the following 365 days, the economy, education, recreation, careers — the very threads of our everyday lives — have been diminished or at least altered.

The numbers can be staggering — more than 1.6 million people infected in this state alone, almost 10 percent of them seriously enough to be hospitalized.

The saddest number: More than 38,000 New Yorkers have lost their lives to the virus. Multiply that by a dozen or 20 or 50, and you begin to see the number of people who grieve for their loss.

But a less-often reported number — 144,991 — also is important. It’s the number of New Yorkers hospitalized with COVID who recovered sufficiently to be discharged.

Some are still fighting the lingering effects of COVID. Others are symptom-free. Their collective triumph over the virus — thanks to modern medicine, a supporting cast that numbers in the millions, sheer will, God — is among the most heartening chapters in a saga that is far from complete as year two of the pandemic begins.

These are the experiences of three Capital Region residents who are winning their fight against COVID after a combined 138 days in the hospital.

HELP FROM ABOVE

When his condition deteriorated to the point that his life was in danger, Steve Shaw of Rotterdam was put in a drug-induced coma for 17 days and placed on a ventilator.

It worked — he’s here to tell about it — but it was no 17-day nap.

He could write a book, he said, about the devil that populated his nightmares in that time.

“God protected me through all that and it was just amazing,” said Shaw, an ordained minister.

“I was diagnosed on March 17 of last year and I came home May 7.”

The ordeal began with headaches initially misdiagnosed as a sinus infection.

“COVID was so new, though, I don’t hold it against anybody. I’m still here, so I definitely don’t hold it against anybody,” he reflected.

His wife, Brenda, and daughter, Brianca, also contracted the virus, but neither had the severe reaction he did.

His wife decided to go to St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam to get herself checked out, and he went with her. The medical team that saw the couple soon focused on him — his lungs weren’t filling properly.

“I saw them outside the room having a conversation about us,” Shaw said. In short order, he was admitted and placed in the coma.

While he was under, the doctors told his family he would need a tracheotomy if he didn’t start to improve soon. His daughter was opposed, because he’s a preacher and a singer. His wife was open to the idea because she knew he’d want to live.

Shaw took a turn for the better shortly, and was discharged to Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady.

“I don’t remember much at St. Mary’s. I remember being afraid to get in that ambulance to leave,” he recalled.

Then the real pain began.

“It was a terrible time in rehab, more than anything,” Shaw said. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t use my arms, I couldn’t talk.”

In April, he spent his wedding anniversary apart from Brenda for the first time in their 33-year marriage.

“It was a rough day for me that day. Them therapists didn’t care; they forced me to do what I had to do. But I commend them. They got me to walking again.”

After his discharge, Brianca organized a welcome-home parade that Shaw couldn’t even stand up for. So he sat and savored the moment with his grandson.

“I did the best I could because of that little boy on my lap. … I said, Lord, if I have to stay like this the rest of my life, I’m grateful to be alive.”

Nine months later, Shaw uses a foot brace and continues therapy because of drop foot, possibly due to nerve impingement from all the time in bed. He plans to win that last battle, too, and takes every chance he gets to spread the word about preventing the spread of COVID-19.

If you won’t do it for the people around you, he said, “You better do it for yourself, because I’m living testimony that it’s real.”

WAITING FOR THE SUN

Tina Munchbach of Galway endured four false negatives before a fifth test finally revealed her COVID infection.

She woke with a fever Dec. 29. Nine months into the pandemic, that called for a test, but it showed nothing. Another test. Nothing. The New Year’s holiday delayed another test result.

And so it went, until she started coughing up blood and registered a 103.6-degree fever on Jan. 3. Her husband drove her to the Saratoga Hospital Emergency Department. A swab deeper in her nasal cavity finally confirmed the infection.

“I tanked from there, my oxygen and everything, boom!” Munchbach said Friday.

She never quite reached critical status over the next 23 days, holding just above the danger zone that would put her in the intensive care unit.

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“I was in bad shape but they told me I was holding my own,” she said. “It was very hard. Not being able to see my family was very hard, not knowing if my next breath was going to be my last, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Munchbach is relatively young at 48, and before all this was healthy and active, enjoying walking and kickboxing.

Five weeks after discharge, she is better but far from well.

“I’m still on oxygen. I still struggle with this cough that won’t go away,” she said. “I’m not over it yet.”

She hasn’t gone back to work yet — that would be hard towing an oxygen tank and barking like a seal.

Going to the supermarket with her daughter is no pleasure, either.

“I can’t walk around very long so I get in the electric cart,” she said.

The reaction from some of her fellow shoppers is not friendly.

But a lot of setbacks become relative after 17 days in the hospital with a potentially deadly virus: She’s glad to be here, and is looking forward to spring so it doesn’t hurt to breathe the cold outside air anymore.

She’s waiting for the sun, essentially.

About which: A tradition developed at hospitals early on in the pandemic was broadcasting the opening of the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” over the PA system each time a COVID patient was discharged.

Saratoga Hospital has had 398 COVID-positive inpatients in the past 12 months and has played the song many, many times as survivors have gone home. Staff is known to sing along at times, or just smile.

Munchbach learned of the tradition from her sister after she was admitted.

“For me it was just like, I want to hear that song!” she said.

“It gave me something to look forward to, no lie.”

There was no sunshine when they finally played the song for her. It was dark. But there were tears in both her eyes and her husband’s as they were reunited outside the hospital.

“It was the first time in 32 years we’ve been apart that long.”

THE LONG HAULERS

Maya McNulty of Niskayuna was another patient hit hard in the earliest days of the pandemic.

“I was diagnosed with COVID March 14,” she said.

By March 21, she was in an induced coma with a ventilator and a tracheotomy.

“Thirty-five days later in the ICU, my lungs had collapsed several times,” McNulty said. The situation looked bad enough that her doctor advised her husband to call their daughter home from college in Colorado, as she might need to say goodbye.

But McNulty took a turn for the better, was discharged and spent additional weeks at Sunnyview. On the 69th day, she came home.

Much of her life since then has been a journey of recovery, but only partial recovery. She’s a member of a group that has gained its own designation: long-haulers, those still suffering the lingering effects of COVID more than two months after the virus clears their systems.

McNulty made great progress, regaining the ability to walk, talk and eat, but problems remain.

She’s had bronchitis three times since August, and was coughing as she spoke to The Gazette on Thursday. She has trouble walking, muscle tremors, and charley horse pain in numerous locations.

As she works on her own problems, McNulty has moved into a support role for her fellow long-haulers.

“It’s been really helpful to me, to be able to tell people they’re not going through it alone.”

Behind it all, there remains a sense of the unknown: COVID is so new that its long-term effects are still being discovered.

McNulty has asked her doctors perhaps 100 times what Year 2 will be like for her, and they never have an answer.

Her own family illustrates the fickle nature of the disease: Her daughter caught COVID from her sorority sisters, got sick and was basically back to normal in two weeks, with only occasionally recurring loss of taste since then.

“I’m co-dependent on many people because I’m still not able to drive a year later. I can’t walk without a cane,” McNulty said by way of contrast.

Long-haulers, she said, are not a one-size-fits-all group.

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Categories: News, Schenectady County

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