'It won't happen to us': It did, and against odds, Becket resident escapes virus' deadly grip
BECKET — Dwayne Long felt secure in his home in the Berkshire hills in the earlier days of the coronavirus pandemic.
"It won't happen to us," the 49-year-old software analyst recalls thinking. "We're out here in the woods; it's not going to get to us. We were wrong."
At home Friday, Long's once-long beard was growing back. After veins in his arms collapsed during his hospitalization at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, he caught a glimpse of a scalpel out of the corner of his eye, moments before a clinician cut into his neck to set up a line for delivering fluids.
Long is one of the 94 coronavirus patients who have been hospitalized at BMC since the outbreak began and says he considers himself lucky to count himself among the 74 who were discharged.
The flulike symptoms began around March 16, nearly a week after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19. His symptoms came in waves and were brutal, and his wife, Paula, said his condition worsened over the next two weeks.
Long, who is immunosuppressed and, thus, more vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19, said his primary care physician secured a number of coronavirus test kits for his patients. His doctor administered the nasal swab while Long sat in a car outside the Stockbridge practice and, according to Long, his specimen was shipped to California to be tested.
His doctor called ahead to BMC, which, just over three weeks earlier, had seen its first presumptive positive patient. His wife packed up a few of his things in a tote bag. She also had flulike symptoms — she and their youngest daughter, Bridget, later tested positive for COVID-19.
The ambulance pulled off the dirt road to their home. Paula Long said she was told she couldn't come outside, so she watched her husband leave in the ambulance, fearing the unknown.
"That's the last time I saw you until May," Long said to his wife.
Over the next several weeks, medical staff at BMC helped the family communicate over FaceTime when they could. Long was in a medical isolation room at first; his family wasn't allowed to visit, so, his contact was limited to the doctors and nurses clad head to toe in personal protective equipment.
"There's no one in there with you," he said. "You were in a dark room by yourself. The only thing you got is the beeping, and a clock on the wall."
Long was battling a highly severe and life-threatening COVID-19 infection that presented complications during treatment, said pulmonary specialist Dr. Hafez Alsmaan, part of Long's treatment team along with Dr. Julio Miranda, Dr. David Oelberg and Dr. Cynthia Callahan.
The Longs roundly praised the doctors and nursing staff, who communicated daily with Paula. According to the Longs, Dwayne spent a week on a ventilator. When he came off, doctors discovered he had treatment-resistant pneumonia and, about two days later, he needed to be placed on the breathing machine again.
Paula Long, who is the director of the Grace Hall Memorial Library in Montgomery, knew the odds were not stacked in her family's favor — she said doctors told her that her husband's chance of surviving the illness hovered at 5 to 9 percent.
She turned to her minister, family and friends, and prayer, and did her best to keep to a routine. Bridget, 13, was in middle school, and her teacher eased expectations for remote learning during her quick recovery from COVID-19 and amid her father's uncertain one.
"I was scared," Bridget said. "I didn't know what was going on."
The teenager talked about her father with her sister, Hannah, a 23-year-old certified nursing assistant.
Long said he experienced "ICU delirium" after finally coming off a ventilator, a condition thought to be connected to the sedation administered to patients in intensive case for an extended period of time, Alsmaan said.
"The meds that they gave allowed my brain to create its own world," Long said. "I wasn't getting stimulation from the outside world ... so, it ended up creating a hallucination."
After two weeks on the ventilator, Long was weaned off the machine for a second time and began to breathe on his own again. A throng of mostly staff lined the hallway, cheering as he exited the ICU.
It was, he said, a very good day.
More days and nights in the hospital followed, as he continued experiencing delirium and hallucinations — some he still is trying to untangle from reality.
"I'm having a hard time telling what was real and what wasn't, because I see both in my brain just as vividly."
It remains unclear how the family became infected. Paula Long has tried to take stock of everyone she had contact with in the days and weeks before they fell ill.
Too many to count at a concert she went to with her husband in Northampton in late February, when he still had his beard grown long. Family dinners. She said she is horrified to think she may have exposed her loved ones, or that she went to work while asymptomatic, potentially exposing patrons.
And Long still grapples with the fact that other COVID-19 patients hospitalized with him at BMC didn't make it through — there are over 95,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States and 38 in Berkshire County — and wonders why he survived.
"When there were people in the beds on either side of me that didn't?" he said. "The longer that they were on the ventilators, the less chance that they had, but I was the longest one on the ventilator. Why me? I still have no idea."
It can be difficult to understand the severity of the virus until it affects someone you know, he said. The outbreak hasn't disappeared because businesses and activities are gradually restarting operations, he said, and he worries that people will become complacent.
"I'm afraid people will throw up their hands and say, `Oh, no, we're good!' and go back to their old routines," he said. "That would be a bad thing."
Amanda Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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