Enduring the COVID-19 illness: A survivor’s tale

It had been 13 days since Cliff Batuello had visited his brother while on business in California when he started feeling a little sick.

His brother, one of three TSA agents who worked the same checkpoint at a San Jose airport and had recently tested positive for COVID-19, had just been rushed to a hospital intensive care unit.

Mr. Batuello, 69, at first felt like he had a bit of a cold. On March 9, his illness took on a very different and concerning feel, and because of his younger brother’s rapidly deteriorating condition, Mr. Batuello and his wife, Regan, feared the worst.

“It was morphing into what seemed like the flu,” Mr. Batuello said on Thursday from his house in Cutchogue, where he is still under mandatory quarantine, a persistent cough the last symptom remaining of a three-week illness. “On the 10th, I was tested. On the 12th, it came back positive and … the health department sent over a form and some masks, saying that I was basically under house arrest.”

Mr. Batuello, a wholesale wine salesman who has worked the East End for decades, informed his employer of his illness so that they could warn others who had been in close contact (none have developed illness, as far as he’s aware) with him recently.

But beyond that, there was little instruction to be had on what to do next.

The county assigned a health care social worker, who happened to be a friend of the family. The only guidance the experts could offer, though, was to keep track of his temperature and that if he started having trouble breathing, he should go to the hospital.

“The guidelines were for us to sleep in separate rooms and, well, there was no way I was doing that,” Regan Batuello scoffed. “All I knew was that if it escalated quickly, and he had a hard time breathing, I needed to be there so we could get him to the hospital.”

Her husband’s expertly trained sense of smell never faded — a reported early symptom of the virus infection for some — but the illness quickly devolved to withering fever and a shuddering cough.

The next eight or nine days would be lived shivering in bed, wracked with hallucinations and nightmares, rarely eating and convulsing with cough.

“It was very scary,” Ms. Batuello said.

“For me, I was cold a lot,” her husband said. “That’s the fever, of course, but my feet would feel like they were frozen. I was worried I was losing circulation. The coughing was very bad, too. Someone dropped off an enormous bag of lozenges when I was first getting sick. They are almost gone now. I was living on them.”

Ms. Batuello said she reverted to her motherhood training in treating kids with the flu. During the day, she would wake up her husband regularly to make sure he drank, but otherwise let him sleep and let the fever rage to kill the infection. At night, “I’d knock him out with NyQuil,” she said.

He would rise from bed rarely, only to use the bathroom.

The fever would rise and fall — the couple kept meticulous records — and Mr. Batuello said he took fewer fever-reducing medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen because he didn’t want to artificially lower his temperatures so as to better track how bad the illness was getting, in case it got to a point where he needed to be taken to a hospital.

When the fever spiked one night up to 104, the couple thought about the hospital.

But throughout, Mr. Batuello says, he never had any breathing distress and therefore came to the conclusion that hospitalization was not necessary.

“I knew that if I took him to the hospital, because of all the infection, he would be swallowed up into the system and I wouldn’t see him again until he came — or didn’t come — out,” Ms. Batuello said. “So unless he was in dire straits, we didn’t want to do that.”

When he ate, his wife says, it was a few bites of scrambled eggs.

“Scrambled eggs and cough drops, that was about it,” she said with a slight chuckle. “He had no appetite.”

And then, about five days ago, the fever broke. The cough has persisted, but Mr. Batuello says he is now feeling very good and is buoyed by the cautiously optimistic hope that he now likely has a robust immunity.

Mr. Batuello is still under mandatory quarantine at home because county guidelines require that he take two more tests that show no coronavirus in his system. But the county is so short of tests, he can’t get tested again.

Ms. Batuello has yet to have any symptoms of illness, despite having slept in the same room as him for the last two weeks.

“She’s got to have it,” her husband said this week. “It’s just luck of the draw, I think. My brother, he’s 10 years younger and he didn’t have any underlying conditions and he’s where he is and I’m back to just having a little cough.”

Mr. Batuello’s brother, who he has asked not be named, remains in intensive care, on a ventilator and heavily sedated to ward off coughing fits. His vitals are steadily worsening.

His own good fortune in having pulled through, Mr. Batuello chalks up to a healthy dose of luck and the fact that he quickly took to a regimen of rest when he started feeling ill — perhaps his one bit of advice to those who will find themselves beset with COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

“I retired to bed right away, and I feel that is so important,” he said. “You have to know when to fight and when to hunker down and just fight a different kind of fight.”

This article was published in conjunction with The Southampton Press.