Surviving COVID-19: A True story, told by the wife of a New Jersey Survivor.

Updated: Jul 13, 2021




My name is Stacey Berliner and I am the wife of someone who had COVID 19. Our story began in March of 2020...It was one week into lockdown in New Jersey, and this whole pandemic freaked me out. I never thought it could hit my house/family. Why…?? On the night of March 22, I decided to sleep in the basement as my husband had a terrible cough and I felt I wouldn't get any sleep. I woke in the early morning on the 23rd to a text message from my husband, Cliff, that he had driven himself to the local ER as he had a bad cough and couldn't catch his breath. They admitted him immediately. Based on his blood test, they knew he had COVID. This was later confirmed through a swab test and he was told he would need to spend 4-5 days in the hospital. Well, 4 to 5 days turned into 89 days, 76 days of which he was on a ventilator and 6 weeks in rehab.

On 3/27, he was moved to ICU. On 4/1, he was placed on a ventilator. 4/17, he changed to the trachea. 4/22, they inserted a feeding tube. On 4/28, he had a thoracoscopy. In addition, Cliff was given 2 blood transfusions along with hydroxychloroquine and actemra. It was a rollercoaster ride for both of us. I was unable to be with my husband due to COVID protocols, so the phone was my lifeline. I had daily calls to the nurses and doctors roughly 2 or 3 times a day to get updates and advocate on my husband’s behalf. I had to rely on the information I was given. I was at the mercy of the doctors/nurses treating him. Unfortunately, I was not in a position to call in the best doctor who is an expert in treating the virus. You just hope he is given the best care possible as they were learning about this deadly virus while treating him. My husband was essentially a guinea pig. If no one answered the phone or didn't return my call at the hospital then my head automatically went to the worst thoughts. When I called in the mornings, I just wanted to hear that he made it another day - the fight continued. On several occasions, I'd cry myself to sleep or cry in the shower because I needed to stay strong for my boys and I didn’t want them to worry.

During his stay, my friends and family would bake or contribute to weekly lunches that I would drop off or have delivered to the nurses’ station that was caring for Cliff. This was my way of saying thank you for all they were doing and also for them to know Cliff was not alone. He had “a village” fighting for him on the outside. I had created a daily checklist to ask the nurses since this was a learning experience for me as well: blood pressure, fever, oxygen levels, sedation levels, white blood count, chest x-rays, heart rate, secretions, cultures, breathing trials/pressure support, coughing spasms, etc. I found it strange that his fever was never consistent and it would come and go daily. He also suffered double pneumonia in both lungs which caused them to collapse. A chest tube was placed in the left lung for drainage, yet they were unable to address the right lung as he was too ill. Cliff had a stage 4 pressure wound.

Towards the end of April, iPads were placed in the room so my boys and I could Zoom with him. We have 2 sons: Jake, age 16, and Josh, age 20. I would call to talk to him even though he was still sedated and wasn't always coherent, oftentimes delirious. He experienced a lot of hallucinations when coming out of sedation, which is common. My boys attempted to speak with their dad via Zoom, but it traumatized them to see their father hooked up to so many machines while appearing withered away to almost nothing. I’d stay on a call for hours so he would not feel alone. Being in isolation while being in pain and scared for your life mentally is detrimental to their recovery. I don’t think we address the ramifications of isolation enough.

On 5/21, Cliff was moved out of ICU and onto a respiratory floor. On 5/28, I was granted an exception and was finally allowed to visit my husband. This was the first time in over 2 months that I was able to see him in person. I was so scared but it was great to spend an hour with him. I only lasted an hour with all the PPE- I just couldn't breathe! They tried to wean him from the ventilator for weeks, yet he was having difficulty. The doctors kept telling me he was critically ill and it would be a long road to recovery. However, he had made it this far and we were going to keep fighting. Cliff was 55 at the time, with no underlying conditions, and had so much more life to live. Our journey was far from over.

6/9, he had a debridement for his wound, then on 6/17, the trachea was capped. Finally, on 6/19, he was discharged to Kessler (rehab center). Upon his release from the hospital to a rehab center, he had a “clap out”. Over 50 friends and family gathered at the hospital to show their love and support for Cliff and our family and to witness his release. It was a day forever ingrained in our heads- one we will never forget. Upon discharge, one of the many doctors told Cliff he is a true miracle after all he had been through. In theory, he shouldn't have made it but he beat the odds.

On 6/23, the trachea was removed at rehab where he had to learn to walk again and begin his physical recovery. He was left with critical illness neuropathy in his left arm with no mobility at all. The neurologists ruled out a stroke and couldn’t say for certain if/when he would regain mobility. He required intense therapy. 8/4, he was discharged to come home. Once home, people assumed everything was good and that Cliff had recovered. On the contrary, a whole next phase of recovery began. We had to make some changes in the house since he came home with a wheelchair, a special walker to accommodate the lack of use of his left arm and oxygen. We had to have a nurse come 3 times a week with an aide to help with grooming needs. He needed help washing, getting dressed, etc. My husband had lost his independence.

Throughout our journey, I held down a full-time job (which became remote) only to be let go in October. I kept my son home an additional semester from college. Luckily, he was able to do it remotely. I had reservations about him being back at the campus and selfishly I needed some additional help at home. Our family was turned upside down!

On 9/24, he had lung surgery (decortication) as he still had one collapsed lung. They put in 2 more chest tubes and 3 days later all chest tubes were removed and 3 days later, he was discharged.

Currently, at the writing of this story, he is still recovering and is considered an official "Long-Hauler". He no longer needs oxygen, but still has shortness of breath. He attends physical therapy, 3x a week, has acupuncture twice a week, and is gaining some mobility in the left arm but it is still not functional. He continues to make progress and has become a little bit more independent. He can now drive on his own and we no longer have help coming into the home. Slowly making strides every day.

Cliff was a self-employed Real Estate appraiser prior to COVID-19. Now, he has not worked in almost a year and cannot go back to his line of work at this time. He is fortunate that he was able to get a job and is now working remotely. We take one day at a time and celebrate the small wins and are hopeful one day he will be 100% independent and back to "normal" whatever that may be!

He slept through the worst of his illness in the hospital and really has no recollection of most of it- even to this day small things come up that I tell him and he had no idea it happened to him. We are almost a year out from the initial diagnosis and still living with the aftermath of lingering effects, which there are still no answers for.

Thankfully, the numbers are dropping, but we still have to be diligent and do our part to keep ourselves and others safe.

I read so many stories from survivors, that I approached Cliff and told him I wanted him to get his story out there because I felt it was important to share. His response was, “It's not my story to tell- it is yours."

We are so blessed to have made it through a pandemic that has taken the lives of so many!! I feel that it is important to continue to share Cliff's story, and to let others who are dealing with a COVID-19 infection, (personally, or as a family member of someone who is ill.) know, that there IS HOPE!!

Click here to see the CNN interview that Stacey did with Anderson Cooper.

Cliff leaving the hospital: an 89-day nightmare.

Our family, REUNITED!!

Cliff and our sons, Josh & Jake Post-COVID-19 celebrating his 56th birthday.

Our friends and family, gathering to celebrate Cliff's "clap out"

Celebrating the professionals who helped bring him home to us!! (Cliff's Clap out)

So grateful for our heroes: the Doctor's and nurses who took great care of

him and helped get him home to us!

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