WALLINGFORD — On Saturday morning, Jay Bialkowski is scheduled to walk out of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare after an intense 30-day recovery from COVID-19.
The 54-year-old Glastonbury resident has seen two hospitals since first being admitted four weeks ago and has been quarantined the entire time, unable to see his wife and daughter.
“This almost destroyed my family,” Bialkowski said. “My wife and daughter are the strong ones.”
Bialkowski first started feeling sick with cold-like symptoms and a slight fever on March 23. Two days later he was having trouble breathing and told his family to call 911. EMS personnel took him to Hartford Hospital, where he was immediately admitted to the ICU.
“It was a matter of a couple of hours I was put on a ventilator and intubated,” he said. “This thing came up like a freight train and just blew me off the rails.”
Bialkowski was on the ventilator for two and a half weeks, a time he doesn’t have much recollection of. Doctors had given him a drug for temporary paralysis, so when he came off the ventilator, Bialkowski couldn’t move for about 24 hours, he said. On April 13 he was discharged from Hartford Hospital and admitted to Gaylord in Wallingford.
“When I got here I couldn’t even lift an arm,” Bialkowski said from Gaylord on Friday.
Since then, Bialkowski has made gains in his speech and in many movements. Five days into therapy he was already able to walk again, without assistance.
“He just made an absolute remarkable recovery,” occupational therapist Katie Zimmerli said. “He’s definitely a miracle man, that’s for sure.”
She credits his very quick recovery to his immense determination and internal motivation.
“My motto is determination is the key to success,” Bialkowski said, noting with great appreciation the “phenomenal” team that has cared for him at Gaylord, which he considers a kind of extended family.
Zimmerli said Bialkowski is a testament to the hard work healthcare providers across the country are putting in to see patients fully recover from the coronavirus, even when it puts their own lives at risk.
“I’m seeing every bit of what we’re doing is worth it now,” she said. “Keep doing what you’re doing, keep fighting.”
Bialkowski said he’s a generally healthy person and stays active by working out at a gym and playing golf regularly. He works full-time managing daytime security in the psych ward of Hartford Hospital.
‘Never felt so bad’
For Wallingford resident Caitlin Houston, the road to recovery isn’t over, also after a month of illness.
Though she’s been able to avoid hospitalization, COVID-19 has led to seemingly never-ending additional diagnoses for the 34-year-old mother of two, including shingles, a sinus infection, and maybe now a lung infection.
“It's emotionally and mentally exhausting. I find myself crying at least once a day, if not more than once a day,” Houston said. “It’s really scary because at this point I'm like when is it actually going to go away.”
Houston writes a life and style blog, chronicling her life since getting engaged in 2008 and through marriage, having kids, and family moves. When she first started feeling flu-like symptoms around March 22 she was hesitant to share with her online community, even though she strives to be authentic through the blog. It wasn’t until people started reaching out with concern that she decided to share her experience.
Since then she has been updating readers regularly on her blog and social media about her experience with the virus. Houston said interacting with others, especially others with COVID-19, online has been comforting, but she doesn’t want people to think that her experience with the virus is the same thing everyone will go through.
“I think my biggest message to people is, I'm not an old person, I'm not someone who was sick beforehand, I am not someone that was being irresponsible ... I was doing what I was supposed to do,“ she said. “I don't want people to be scared ... it's more of just be careful and be mindful and be clean.”
Houston said the first week she was sick was the most horrible.
“There were about four days where I had just about every symptom you could imagine, from my head to my toes, everything,” she said. “I never felt so bad, where I was thinking if this gets any worse I'm just going to pass out.”
After about eight days of being sick, she was able to get tested at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s drive-through testing site. Three days later she received the positive results.
Besides one trip to the hospital for a lung X-Ray — during which nurses communicated with her mainly via telephone in a private room— she has been diagnosed only by teleconferencing with her doctor.
“I think the biggest struggle through all of this is … it's all just been this ‘sorry you have this weird mysterious virus and we don't know how to treat you but we're just going to keep throwing stuff at it,’” she said.
Her husband and young daughters have stayed healthy themselves, and Houston can’t imagine what it's like for sick people without a healthy partner or extended family for childcare support or getting groceries.
While Houston is focused on just getting better right now, she’s been told she may have longer term effects of weakened lungs or acute chronic fatigue.
At the end of the day, she said she’s grateful to be alive and able to fight this from her home and not a hospital, but it's hard every day not to let the bad thoughts creep in.
“I think a lot of people want to see these happy endings and yes they're out there and yes I will have mine, I know I will have mine, but I'm not quite there yet,” she said.