They were among the unwilling pioneers of a disease that has sickened thousands in Illinois alone.
Stricken in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic’s spread through the United States, they knew they might experience little more than a sore throat and fever — or end up in a hospital on a ventilator or die.
Now, they know what it’s like to have faced COVID-19 and emerged. They are survivors. These are some of their stories.
Paul Richard, Beverly
As a Chicago firefighter, Paul Richard once climbed to the top of a 100-foot-tall crane to safely talk down a young man who was threatening to jump.
Another time, Richard was trapped in a high-rise filling with black smoke. He passed out. He awoke in a hospital bed with a priest leaning over him.
“I’ve been blown up, broken up, banged up,” says Richard, now 69 and retired.
In the past week, Richard survived a different kind of ordeal — coming home after two weeks at Advocate Trinity Hospital on the South Side battling COVID-19. The virus attacked his kidneys, liver and immune system.
“Oh, brother, you better believe I was scared,” says Richard, who is now recovering at home in Beverly. “I didn’t know what was going on. It was like I was in a daze.”
His half-brother drove him to the hospital about two and a half weeks ago. That was after he’d been feeling so weak he barely could tie his shoes. It felt like a “little elephant” was sitting on his chest.
His memory of the time he spent in the hospital is foggy. At one point, he says he thought angels had appeared to him on the walls of his hospital room.
“I believe in God,” Richard says. “He’s saved me. And he’s still working with me.”
On Tuesday, he got out of the hospital.
“That he made a complete recovery is a victory by any definition,” says Dr. Michael Anderson, who heads Trinity’s emergency department.
Richard’s older brother got sick and died while he was in the hospital. A retired U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, Richard says he’ll grieve in his own way.
“I’m not one of those big boo-hoo guys,” he says.
Friends and family are leaving food for him on his porch because he’s still in self-quarantine for a few more days.
“My son threw some canned soup over there,” he says. “It was horrible, but I ate it.”
After a life of so many escapes, he’s looking forward to a full recovery.
“It’s hard to keep a good man down,” he says.
Shannon Failla, South Loop
Shannon Failla was in her South Loop apartment in mid-March, cooking a cheese-and-spinach omelet, when she noticed something odd. There was a scented candle near her — and she couldn’t smell it.
The floral-scented wax had no more of an odor for her than a glass of water would. She couldn’t smell her food, either — an increasingly common complaint among those with the coronavirus.
It wasn’t until she had to labor to breathe that Failla, 31, and otherwise healthy, was convinced she needed to drive straight to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s emergency department.
“There was just so much pressure, and I was so short of breath even just getting up off the couch to go to the bathroom,” says Failla, a property management consultant.
She had no fever, a decent oxygen level and normal blood work, though. So doctors in the emergency room thought at first she probably could go home. But they wanted to check one more thing first: her vital signs when she was on her feet and moving.
“When I did that, my oxygen level got really low, and my heart rate skyrocketed,” Failla says.
She later tested positive for the disease and spent four days in Northwestern’s COVID-19 unit.
She never got so sick that she needed oxygen. But a host of terrible possibilities swirled in her head.
It didn’t help that when she looked through her social media accounts they were filled with grim stories about the coronavirus.
“If you fill your brain with all of the death stories and the negative, how can you not think that way?” she says.
Now, she’s back home in her one-bedroom apartment and feeling better. The few times that she has gone out to the grocery store, she’s worn a mask and taken disinfecting wipes with her.
“You can’t really relax with this,” she says. “Technically, they say you can’t get it again and that you’re immune. But I don’t know that. Nobody knows that.”
Failla doesn’t know how she contracted the virus and feels guilty that she went to a South Loop bar on St. Patrick’s Day, assuming then that her congestion probably was bronchitis.
“I do feel guilty. I do feel awful. But I also wasn’t educated enough. If you would have told me I couldn’t go to a bar or a restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, I wouldn’t have gone. I’m a rule-follower.”
Victoria, downtown Chicago
Victoria was getting dressed last Sunday morning when suddenly she slumped to the floor.
She came to a few seconds later. Her 15-year-old daughter, in tears, was hovering and on the phone with a 911 dispatcher.
But Victoria, who spoke on the condition her last name not be used, wasn’t thinking it was coronavirus because she didn’t think she had the right symptoms.
The 61-year-old psycho-educational consultant, who lives downtown, is diabetic and has high blood pressure. So she hadn’t needed to hear all of the warnings about washing your hands frequently and avoiding big gatherings.
“I knew I was at risk. So I was that person way back in March wearing gloves and masks and carrying wipes with me. I was sheltering in place before they ever said to.”
An ambulance rushed her to Northwestern, where she told the doctors she’d had a sinus headache and a runny nose but no fever. She was quickly diagnosed with the coronavirus. They told her they weren’t surprised because they were seeing a wide range of symptoms.
“I cried because I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is a death sentence,” she says.
Her daughter, still at home, sobbed, too, when her mom called with the news.
But she says Northwestern staff told her she was in a safe place and that most of those with the disease recovered and went home.
Still in the hospital, she says her temperature soared to 103 at one point but that she needed oxygen only the first day and has been told she’s recovering.
“When I got to my room, it was very quiet,” she says, coughing at times. “I never feel like the nurses or doctors are so unavailable because they are running from room to room.”
Weeks ago, as fear about the pandemic grew, Victoria remembers thinking: I’m so frustrated with this. There’s a part of me that wants to have it, survive it and be done with it.
Still, she fears she might face a stigma over contracting the virus.
“I feel like it’s important for people to understand: I took a lot of precautions, but I still got it. And I’m beating it at this point.”
Michael Rubin, Kenwood
Becky Rubin just wanted her boys to come home. Her son Michael, 19, is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York, which, in mid-March, was still emerging as a hot spot for the virus. And Danny was at the University of Michigan. Both have asthma — an underlying condition that can make COVID-19 worse.
So Michael canceled a ski trip to Utah. And Danny, 20, who worried that being in Chicago would distract him from his studies, reluctantly returned to the family’s Victorian home in Kenwood.
Then, Michael was diagnosed with the coronavirus. He’d had chills, a pounding headache and a high fever.
“Honestly, I was just mostly shocked that I had it because, at the time, I was one of the first 100 cases in Chicago to test positive,” he says. “So it was still very new in the U.S.”
His mother worried that the virus might trigger his asthma, which had flared up last Thanksgiving. She also worried about Danny, and the boys’ father, who also has asthma.
“I was very, very, very nervous the first few days,” Becky Rubin says.
She’s thankful for having a big house, which allowed Michael to be isolated on the third floor, with Danny and the parents on the floor below.
Mom would go up to the third floor three or more times a day, knocking on Michael’s door to let him know his food was there.
She felt guilty, wondering whether Danny might have been better off back at college.
Then, Michael’s symptoms eased.
Becky Rubin developed a “terrible” headache and sore throat, but they’re all feeling better now.
Life hasn’t quite returned to normal, though for the normally “hugging family,” she says.
“We have hugged,” she says, “but very briefly.”