Interview with Sallye Bleiberg

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

By Sabahat Rahman, Associate Editor


Graphic by Senching Hsia

Sabahat Rahman: What were the first signs/symptoms that made you think you might have COVID-19?

Sallye Bleiberg: I woke up with body aches and a fever. This was the beginning of April when COVID-19 was already being talked about a lot, so I was pretty sure that's what it was. Then, a couple of days later, the dry coughs started. That's when I thought I'd better get tested.

SR: What was the testing process like? Was it easy or difficult? Where did you have to go?

SB: It was quite easy. Information had been provided by the town about where you could go to get tested. I called a phone number. They asked me some questions to make sure I had COVID-19 and then gave me the appointment. I was tested outside; a lab had set up an outside testing area. They did the nose swab and sent me on my way. The next day, they sent me the results.

SR: When you got your results, did you quarantine at home or go straight to a hospital? What was your experience at the hospital like?

SB: The requirement was, of course, to self-quarantine. I stayed at home for another day trying to isolate as much as possible from my husband. Then, the coughing became so extreme, I decided I'd better go to the hospital. I was so sick that I called an ambulance, which took me to the hospital. They again tested me. I can't really remember if they did anything other than make sure I got plenty of fluids. They also gave me Tylenol for the pain, and they gave me Robitussin for the cough.

My daughter was talking with a very good friend of hers at UMass Medical Center, who is in charge of respiratory medicine. He said it sounded like I qualified for a medicine trial, so I was transferred by ambulance there. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, the trial had closed. I started getting better, so after a couple of days, they discharged me home with oxygen. I'd been put on oxygen at both hospitals.

Then I went home for two days, and I became so much sicker, I knew something was wrong. I went back to the community hospital, where they increased my oxygen to the point where they couldn't raise it any higher. They were going to put me on a respirator. My daughter had me transferred to UMass Medical again, where they have high-flow oxygen. I was on high-flow oxygen, and they were about ready to put me on a ventilator.

I almost died. Overnight, my body just decided it was time to get well. I stayed in the ICU quite a few days after; they were still reducing my oxygen. Then, I was transferred to a regular COVID-19 unit, still on oxygen. Then they decided I was safe to come home, still on oxygen! I was still testing positive too; I tested positive for 80 days.

SR: You mentioned a COVID-19 unit. Clearly, hospitals have these large units for patients. Did you feel like the doctors and nurses in the units were prepared and well-informed about the disease?

SB: The ICU I was in had not been an ICU until COVID-19 had begun to overwhelm the medical system. It was a step down from the ICU. The nurse who was my primary caretaker was a GI nurse who, up until the pandemic, had been doing elective colonoscopies. Then, all electives were shut down. She had a choice of either being unemployed or working on a COVID-19 unit, so she chose to work on the unit. Given that this was not her area of experience, I thought that she was very up to speed and helpful. She was an excellent nurse.

The COVID-19 unit had been a cardiology unit, but it had been converted. Again, the nurses were very well-trained and knowledgeable, even though they had been doing cardiology prior to the pandemic. It's really quite amazing to me how quickly the medical community was able to step up.

I think the doctors were not prepared with enough equipment. The nurses were wearing the same masks all day long. They changed their gowns as soon as they left my room but left on their masks.

SR: What advice do you have for COVID-19 patients or family members of patients?

SB: If you are very sick, do not go to a community hospital. Go to a tertiary care hospital. Don't waste your time. The community hospitals don't have the resources. The one I was in was fine, but they didn't have high-flow oxygen. Don't waste your time if you're very sick or at high risk.

I would tell family members to wear masks and isolate. My husband got COVID-19 from me. Luckily, he was asymptomatic; he didn't even know he had it before he got tested.