'I'm going home' — Nurse recovering COVID leaves hospital after 104 days

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PITTSFIELD — Applause echoed through the sliding doors at the front entrance of Berkshire Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon, reaching its crescendo as Michele Drysgola was wheeled outside for the first time in more than three months.

Tears, hugs and through-the-mask kisses greeted the Pittsfield native as she repeated, "I'm going home."

Drysgola, 62, was hospitalized April 2 with the novel coronavirus, a victim of its early sweep through the Berkshires. She said she spent two stints on a ventilator and neared death four separate times but remembers nothing between the months of April and June. Nevertheless, she survived.

"I'll never be able to repay everybody that said the prayers and wished me well," she said. "It's been amazing, and I'm very overwhelmed."

Drysgola has practiced nursing for over 40 years, working since 2004 at the very hospital where she was treated. But, before her infection, she had been away from work for scheduled surgeries. She is unsure where she picked up the virus.

Drysgola tested for COVID-19 because of a compromised immune system, feeling no symptoms at the time. Her test came back positive. Her husband, Jeff Drysgola, brought her to BMC on April 2 to be treated. Within days, he said, his wife was in the intensive care unit.

For the next two months, nobody from her family could visit her.

"We were talking to the nursing staff or the doctors probably three or four times a day, just getting updates," said Drysgola's daughter, Kelli Woodward. "We would get pretty good news and then all of a sudden have a huge setback."

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Jeff Drysgola said he lived "phone call to phone call" as his wife's condition improved suddenly, then declined quickly. Michele herself has no recollection of anything after her March 30 test results.

For three weeks in April, Drysgola needed assistance from a ventilator to breathe. According to Woodward, her mother's condition had improved enough by May 3 for her to be transferred into a step-down unit — it's an intermediate level of care between intensive care units and a normal ward — and taken off the machine. But, 24 hours later, Drysgola was back in the ICU.

"You get a couple of days that you were on a high, and it was right there, and then all of a sudden COVID would pull that rug right out from underneath you," Jeff Drysgola said.

In the face of these difficulties, the family members relied heavily on one another.

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"If one of us was having a tougher day, somebody else wasn't, so, they were able to kind of keep you going and pick you up. And then the next day the roles would reverse," Woodward said.

After Drysgola's second stretch on the ventilator, her husband said, she was given a tracheotomy and a feeding tube. After this, according to the family, her condition improved steadily. Drysgola said that she regained consciousness for the first time about five weeks ago, in the step-down unit, and was "very confused."

The second time she woke up, in late June, she was in the step-down unit for a week before being moved into rehabilitation. The trach tube came out July 1, and a week later the feeding tube followed.

Drysgola and her family praised the work of the doctors and nurses who took care of her. Pulmonologist Hafez Alsmaan would FaceTime with family members, sometimes twice a day, to let them see Drysgola.

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Jeff Drysgola said that the constant contact with the hospital helped him through his fear.

"It gave us a sense of being there," he said. "The FaceTime [calls] were just something that gave you that hope of, `She's gonna make it.'"

According to the Berkshire Health Systems website, BMC and Fairview Hospital only have one inpatient who is COVID-19-positive.

Michele Drysgola said that all she wants now is time with her family as she recovers. Woodward and her husband, Scott, came to the Berkshires from their hometown of Pittsburgh. Michele Drysgola's son, J.P. Murphy, lives in Pittsfield with his wife, Gayle, and their two children.

"My goal for the next few months is to get stronger, and hug my grandchildren as much as I can," Michele Drysgola said.

As Drysgola and her husband turned down First Street, driving home together for the first time in months, a line of police cars fell in line around them. Murphy, a Pittsfield Police officer, had organized a motorcade to escort his mother back to her house.

The flashing lights reflecting off passing cars signaled the victory that Michele Drysgola achieved over COVID-19.

Christopher Parker can be reached via email at cparker@berkshireeagle.com or via Twitter @cparkerreports.


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