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Back from the Brink: COVID-19 Patients Share Stories of Survival

Monday, November 09, 2020 2:19 PM

Within a few weeks, it turned our lives upside down. Events canceled, routines upended and stay-at-home orders in effect. We learned new terms like social distancing and quarantining while face coverings and rigorous hand washing became the norm. Even today, some 11 months after COVID-19 arrived here, the virus remains a challenging fact of life.

While COVID has left an indelible imprint of illness and death across our world, our country and here at home, there are many who survived—literally back from the brink—thanks to our front-line healthcare heroes. They stepped up to the plate day after day to save lives and help patients recover in the midst of a pandemic not seen in a century.

Here, are some of their stories. 

Joel Santana

Mission Critical
Today, Joel Santana can call himself a COVID survivor. But in early spring he was one of the sickest patients in the Swedish Hospital Intensive Care Unit (ICU), according to its Medical Director Eric Gluck, MD, a pulmonary disease specialist.

The 41-year-old from Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood started feeling sick with body aches and chills, and spent eight days quarantined at home trying to take care of himself as his headaches and severe cough worsened.

“I was super sick, and could hardly get out of my bedroom,” recalled Santana, whose brother helped convince him to get a COVID test. The positive result was followed by a 106-degree fever, loss of his sense of smell and a complete lack of energy. And then Santana had trouble breathing. He ended up in the hospital, signing a consent for a ventilator—which seemed like his only option.

Research on Experimental Treatment
“It was really scary, and I did start to think I might not make it out,” he recalled. One of the first patients to participate in a clinical trial evaluating convalescent plasma at Swedish Hospital, Santana finally started to get better.

“The virus was rapidly progressing and it took everything we had to treat him,” explained Dr. Gluck. Joel is a fighter, and we were all so excited when he started to recover.”

Convalescent plasma therapy is an experimental treatment drawn from the blood of recovered COVID patients. As part of NorthShore, Swedish Hospital clinicians now have access to plasma collected at the NorthShore Blood Bank through this ongoing research collaboration. Based on preliminary results from the clinical trial at Swedish Hospital, Dr. Gluck believes, “the plasma boosted Joel’s ability to fight the virus and it has made a difference for other patients, too.”

Grateful to Be Alive
Santana credits the convalescent plasma he received in the Swedish trial and his compassionate care team with saving his life. He’s thrilled to be back home recovering, taking walks in his neighborhood and getting back to life, including working with his brothers in their flooring business.

“This has been a long journey, but I’m so grateful to everybody who helped me,” he said. Santana had special praise for Swedish Hospital Nurse Dhollie Quiamco, who went above and beyond to comfort him as he feared he would die alone in the hospital. “I’m so glad she was there for me, she was an angel, and I’ll never forget her.”

Quiamco admits that caring for COVID-19 patients has been a daunting experience, but she drew strength from her co-workers and the remarkable recoveries like Santana’s. “In the beginning, Joel was really struggling to breathe. He was anxious being along with no one to talk with,” she said. “I always let him know I was there for him, and it’s been humbling to play a part in his recovery.”

“The collaboration between our nurses and physicians has truly been critical to ensuring the best outcomes for all of our patients,” added Dr. Gluck.

Epic Response
While NorthShore COVID patient John Troy was never close to death, he shared Santana’s sense of isolation. Troy spent 12 days in Evanston Hospital, after contracting the virus on a business trip to New York in early March. He, too, is grateful for the compassionate attention from his team of caregivers.

John Troy

“I felt lucky to have a milder case, but as you watched the news it was hard not to get more concerned,” Troy recalled. “But I always had confidence I was getting great care!”

The 71-year-old grandfather from Skokie never needed oxygen, but suffered severe chills and dizziness, and months later, has still not regained his sense of smell or taste. “I was probably sicker than I allowed myself to think,” Troy said. “It was a harrowing experience, and one I wouldn’t wish on anybody. I’m just glad I came out of it on the other side.”

NorthShore Hospitalist Akbar Ali, MD, was among the clinicians treating Troy at the frontlines of COVID care, traveling between Evanston and Glenbrook Hospitals. “At the beginning of the pandemic there was so much we didn’t know, and I feared for my patients like John,” noted Dr. Ali. “But NorthShore’s leadership has been impressive. We’ve stayed ahead of challenges and minimized our exposure as much as possible. Our nurses are amazing, absolutely the best. In my book of heroes, it’s their brave faces I see.”

Paying It Forward
Patients like Santana, Troy and others benefitted from the system-wide approach and shared expertise at NorthShore and Swedish. In fact, Troy was so appreciative, he made a donation to NorthShore Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund to support ongoing care and research.

“These grateful patients are a testament to the way everybody came together to do what was necessary to provide the absolute best care,” said Neil Freedman, MD, Division Head Pulmonary, Critical Care, Allergy and Immunology, and one of the lead physicians on NorthShore’s COVID-19 response. “We’re well prepared, and we’ll be ready whenever the next wave comes.”

And both Drs. Freedman and Gluck stress that all of us can do our part, too, by following the latest safety protocols and especially by wearing a face covering when out in public.