His hair had yet to grow back. That was a work in progress. But, his taste buds had returned, and the nausea was all but gone.
No more subsisting on ginger candies to soothe his stomach. For the first time in six months, Rick Bua no longer had to look forward to another chemo cocktail.
From the time Bua had spotted the weird lump in his neck while shaving after a workout at his favorite Planet Fitness and correctly surmised he had Hodgkin lymphoma — he was sure before the doctors were — Bua had been almost serenely confident that he would win this one. When Dr. Trevor Bayliss, his oncologist at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, warned him that the chemo coursing through his body would take its toll, Bua had said with a bravado that almost surprised him, “Bring it on.”
He had entrusted his care to a team headed by Bayliss, a cancer survivor who successfully had treated the son of one of Bua’s friends, and Dr. David Fisher, a renowned specialist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Together, they had charted the course of treatment that had gotten him here, feeling good enough to take his wife of 44 years, Debbie, to the Valentine’s Day dance at the Legion hall in North Adams, joining friends, like they had done in years past.
Bua, at the time a 66-year-old from Clarksburg who had worked 37 years at Specialty Minerals in Adams, the limestone manufacturing outfit, and now was the retired grandfather of five, was ready to pick up the pace of life again.
Bua had no inkling, when he began to feel lousy again about a week or so later, that he was about to endure another frontal assault on his mortality.
There was no self-diagnosing — even after Debbie found him passed out on his bathroom floor, and his temperature spiked to 103 and he couldn’t stop shivering — what this one was, either, because it barely was more than a rumor at the time, taking place on the other side of the world. No one knew it already had slipped undetected into the Berkshires.
Beating cancer, it turns out, merely would be a prelude to coming face to face last March with COVID-19. Bua, who tested positive after disbelieving state officials finally had greenlighted his test, was about to become the first known case of COVID in Massachusetts resulting from community transmission, meaning that we were dealing with an enemy from within, not just something brought in from the outside.
Bua had not set foot outside the country for months, not since he and Debbie had made their first-ever trip to Italy the previous summer. He hadn’t even traveled out Berkshire County since.
“I don’t have a T-shirt with the number 1,’’ he said. “All kidding aside, Dr. [Clarisse] Kilayko told me that, someday, she was going to make one up and have it sent to me.’’
‘A white haze’
Kilayko is an infectious disease specialist at Berkshire Medical Center, one who had expressed to Debbie that, as implausible as it sounded, Bua was exhibiting the classic symptoms of COVID that she had only read about. Bayliss, the oncologist, had detected what looked to be a pretty serious lung infection on one of his scans (“He told me there was a white haze there,’’ Bua said).
But, it wasn’t until Bua’s son, Michael, mentioned to Debbie that two of Bua’s friends, guys who had attended the same high school basketball game with Bua a couple of weeks earlier, also were being treated on the same hospital floor, and Debbie passed that on to Kilayko in case it might offer a clue that Kilayko was able to convince state officials that a COVID test was warranted.
“And they come in without warning,’’ Bua said. “And they’ve got their suits on, like those blue hazmat suits you see. A gown. A hairnet. Goggles and face shields and booties, and they whisked me away to the dropdown, which is what they call the ICU on the fourth floor. Debbie couldn’t even keep up with them. I said goodbye to her, a very quick goodbye, which broke her heart.
“And then a nurse comes in and introduces herself, and I get my first swab. She does the throat and she does the nostril.’’
The next morning — early, about 7:30 — another nurse enters his room. “Rick,’’ she said, “you tested positive for the coronavirus.”
“And I say to myself: ‘I can’t believe it,’ ’’ Bua said. “I didn’t think it was here.
“So, now they go into emergency mode. From that point forward, it’s locked down.”
Bua’s two friends, one 72, the other 89, both tested positive. Bua, meanwhile, was trying to get his raging fever under control, but it took days. They gave him 3 liters of oxygen to help him breathe, and gradually reduced that, too.
He would try talking to Debbie, but after just a couple of minutes he was out of breath, exhausted. The trip to the bathroom inside his room was a short one, but it required maximum effort, shuffling his feet, taking his oxygen with him, listening to the alarm signifying a drop in his oxygen, returning, exhausted. And then the dry cough came.
“I was really, really sick,’’ he said.
On Bua’s eighth day at Berkshire Medical Center, Dr. David Oelberg, a pulmonologist, walked into Bua’s room and introduced himself. “He is still my pulmonologist to this day,’’ Bua said.
‘Like coming out of a coma’
Bua never had to go on a ventilator. They pumped him full of steroids, and each day Oelberg checked his lung scans, and each day they got a little better. Finally, on March 14, 13 days after he had been taken by ambulance from Clarksburg to BMC, Bua was told he was going home. Once again, he was one of the lucky ones.
Debbie took Route 8 home to Clarksburg. On the way, it dawned on Bua how much had changed, and not only for him.
“It was like we were driving at 2 o’clock in the morning,’’ he said. “It was so deserted. It’s not a great analogy, but it was like coming out of a coma and waking up to a whole different world.’’
A couple of days after returning home, Bua offered to do the dishes but had to stop because he couldn’t breathe. But, slowly, the man whose daughter-in-law calls him “Sparky,” because he is such a ball of fire, began to improve. He and Debbie took a very slow walk around the yard, then eventually were able to extend a little farther, go down the street past Clarksburg Elementary School. By May, Bua said, he was able to do the 40-minute, 2½-mile walk he used to do before COVID intruded.
“And to this day,’’ he said. “I’m feeling great.”
There is probably some scarring in his lungs, and he still is being tested. A pulmonary test to monitor his recovery from the virus, another scan to track his recovery from cancer. By next August, if the cancer scan comes back clean, that will be the last one. Only blood tests thereafter.
Rick Bua faced double jeopardy, and came out on the other side.
“I knew I was going to come home,’’ he said. “I just had a feeling I was going to come home.’’
He and Debbie are very careful. They wear masks everywhere and practice social distancing. To date, no one else in his circle of family and acquaintances has tested positive.
“With 240,000 [death] cases in this country,’’ he said, “I know how blessed I am. This is a happy-ending story. I will share this with anyone and everyone I can.’’