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Don Berlin, 52, of Plainfield is recovering from a serious cause of COVID-19.
He and his wife Cristina Berlin want to share the details for two reasons.
One, they felt Don's care at Edward Hospital in Naperville was nothing short of phenomenal.
And they both want people in the community to take COVID-19 very, very seriously.
Don felt he wasn't at high risk for serious symptoms. He isn't elderly, doesn't have underlying health conditions and recently passed his physical.
Neither did he ignore his symptoms.
"The impact of this virus is not just like the flu," Don said. "It doesn't just affect the elderly where the young people think, 'Oh, I'll be fine.'"
Don’s symptoms – cough, fever, body aches – began March 8. On March 9 he went to the doctor instead of going to work.
Although Don’s flu swab was negative, Don could not get tested for COVID-19 because he had no known exposure to someone with the virus, he said.
Over the next few days, Don gradually felt worse. In the meantime, his wife Cristina (who is disabled) as well as their daughters, ages 21 and 22, also got sick; they had nausea, coughing, fever and chills.
“And weak,” Cristina said. “Very, very weak.”
On March 13, Don’s fever and body aches vanished.
It was a short reprieve.
By Friday night, Don was having trouble breathing when he got up to walk and by Saturday morning, Don’s breathing was much worse. He called his doctor and was told he still could not get tested but to call back if his breathing become even more worse, Don said.
It did, so Don called back. Forty-five minutes later the doctor told Don to go to the Edward Hospital emergency department. Because Cristina was so weak, one of Don’s daughters dropped Don off at the Edward Emergency Department in Plainfield.
That’s when Don learned he should have gone to Edward’s main hospital in Naperville. But staff quarantined him anyway, checked his vitals and ran some tests, including the swab for COVID-19, Don said.
“But they would not have the tests for two to four days,” Don said. “They said my oxygen was low enough to admit me – at one point when I stood up it was 91 – so they arranged an ambulance to take me to Naperville.”
When Cristina heard the news she was relieved.
“I said, ‘OK, that’s good; they’re going to take care of him,'” Cristina said.
At Edward Hospital, Don went into an isolation room with negative pressure. “Horrific” was how Don described it.
“My family was sick, and I didn’t know how they were,” Don said. “I didn’t see anybody. It was awful not knowing if I was going to make it.”
His breathing was worse by the next day, to the point of gasping. Don recalled thinking, “This isn’t the flu. This is something much worse.”
At one point his fever spiked past 104. It took four hours, medication and an ice bed that “pumped freezing cold ice” before Don’s temperature came down to 100, he said.
“Several times when I was just gasping for breath, they would put a mask on me,” Don said. “I think I was on 20 to 40 liters of oxygen … I was close to being put on a ventilator.”
One wonderful nurse actually stayed with Don through this toughest part and held his hand, assuring him everything would be OK, he said.
“She treated me like I was her father,” Don said. “She was in constant contact with my wife, calling her twice a day. On her days off, she was actually FaceTiming me.”
On March 16, Don’s vitals dropped, and he was transferred to Edward’s intensive care unit, he said.
He had been receiving oxygen and some fluid, but because his lungs were filling with fluid, staff was cautious about administering too much more – until staff had trouble accessing his veins for blood tests.
“Then they put a central line in my neck to administer fluids and do blood draws,” Don said.
On March 17, even though Don’s COVID-19 test results had not returned, staff at Edward Hospital decided to treat him with hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and a drug used to treat HIV, although Don didn’t know what drug that was.
But he remained on that treatment for eight days, he said.
The CDC website said that some types of HIV medicine (such as lopinavir-ritonavir) are being evaluated as possible treatments for COVID-19.
Don said a doctor told him he “might not have made it without the medicine” and that he was “very lucky they started the medicine when they did.”
Don’s COVID-19 test came back March 18, the day after he started the medicine. It was positive.
Keith Hartenberger, system director, public relations, for Edward-Elmhurst Health, confirmed Don was the first COVID-19 patient treated at Edward Hospital.
Don was released on March 25, the day after his medicine was discontinued. His chest X-ray had shown improvement on March 23 and his liver enzymes, which had been elevated, had started coming down.
Don came home 24 pounds lighter (“In the hospital, I didn’t eat for five days,” Don said) and with an albuterol inhaler for shortness of breath.
But he did not come home with oxygen therapy, which he said surprised the nurses who cared for him.
“Although my oxygen dropped to 88 while I was walking, it recovered when I stopped walking,” Don said.
A home health nurse will periodically visit Don and check his vitals and draw blood. Don also has plenty of video conferences scheduled with his doctor.
“They don’t know about permanent lung damage at this point," Don said. "This virus is too new with treatments and results and stuff like that."
Don is still somewhat short of breath and he has some nausea and abdominal pain, he said. This last is the result of the medicine, which will hang around in his system for approximately two more weeks, he said.
“I’m still very weak but I’m working on getting my strength up,” Don said. “I’m doing breathing treatments and trying to get my breathing stronger. I’m now able to go downstairs.
"Before I was just limited to walking around my room. I’ve had to use my inhaler a few times … my appetite is good. I’m just having a hard time eating because my stomach is so upset all of the time.”
Don’s praise for his medical team was high. Everyone kept him informed and treated him with exceptional compassion, he said.
Staff cheered from his window as he improved; some of the nurses drew amusing pictures on his white board to make him laugh.
He couldn’t believe they “put their lives on the line” for him. Cristina agreed.
“Health care workers should be honored and respected for what they do,” Cristina said. “They go in harm’s way to take care of patients they don’t even know,”