Pat Czaplewski spent his St. Patrick’s Day social distancing. After a quick trip to Trader Joe’s, he went home to New Berlin to cook bangers and mash and drink Guinness. Twelve days later he was clinging to life in a West Allis hospital with the help of a ventilator.
By then he was gravely ill for days. The first signs of sickness showed up on March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s. His head hurt. He lacked energy. His chest grew tight. The next day was worse, and he stayed home from work. He lived in bed for the next week, sleeping up to 20 hours every day as his body shivered beneath four comforters. The few hours he was conscious were filled with the relentless throb of excruciating headaches.
“I’ve never had what people call migraines, but if those were it, I think I understand,” he says.
His longtime partner, Amy Meier, was the only other person in the house. She took charge of his health.
“Somewhere within yourself, you have this ability to fight for somebody who can’t,” she says. “That’s what happened to me.”
She satisfied his intense cravings for fresh produce like oranges and bell peppers, and helped with the smallest tasks that left him gasping. Even though it looked like COVID-19, Czaplewski didn’t lose his sense of taste or smell, nor was he seized by coughing fits. The couple held out hope he was afflicted with anything else.
“I thought I had the worst flu I’ve ever had,” Czaplewski says.
Meier contacted Aurora’s COVID-19 hotline on March 19. The operator suspected Czaplewski was having a heart attack and told her to dial 911. Meier disagreed, but offered to take Czaplewski to the emergency room herself. She was told he would not be admitted unless 911 was called. A call to their primary care physician the next day netted a prescription for the antiviral medicine Tamiflu, which Meier raced out to retrieve from Walgreens on Friday night.
For a moment, Czaplewski appeared to rally. His symptoms were held at bay during the daytime, returning in the evenings. The Tamiflu, they thought, was working. A week later, they saw it was a false hope.
“I started to realize it wasn’t doing anything,” Czaplewski says. “People were telling me ‘if you have the flu, you should be over it by now.’”
For Meier and Czaplewski, it was a worst-case wake-up call. Both had underestimated the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, Meier decided she needed to warn others. She started a running journal on her Facebook page, letting everyone know exactly what was unfolding inside her house. The announcement began like this:
Ok so here are the facts:
1. Pat Czaplewski has been sick since Wednesday, March 18.
2. Pat is almost 57 and has type 2 diabetes.
3. His symptoms included: debilitating headaches, fever with hallucinations, dizzy, body aches, difficulty breathing, chest/lung pain, ear pain and major fatigue.
MEIER KEPT POSTING through every twist and turn of the ordeal, creating a public snapshot of life with coronavirus.
“The reason I did what I did on Facebook is because before that we thought it was the flu,” Meier says. “We didn’t realize how serious this was until it hit Pat. I had to tell my friends and family because they had to stay at home. It’s not a joke.”
As Czaplewski’s symptoms worsened, Meier became increasingly frustrated with Aurora. Each time she called the hotline she was asked the same set of questions about travel to China and having contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients. Answering no to the questions seemed to shut doors. She was told to treat him with over-the-counter medicine and boil water to humidify the house. Most of the urgent emails she wrote to Czaplewski’s primary care physician went unanswered.
By March 27, Czaplewski’s breathing was so weak, Meier called 911. The paramedics staged in the driveway, suiting up in full protective equipment before entering the house. One agreed with her that Czaplewski’s lungs sounded bad, but he refused to check his oxygen levels, saying they couldn’t risk contaminating the equipment. He also refused to move Czaplewski, saying he wasn’t sick enough to warrant treatment that must now be rationed. This was not easy for him, he said, as it went against the oath he swore to help others, but the decision was out of his hands. Meier was devastated. She broke down on the phone when she told Czaplewski’s three adult children that she was all their father could rely on.
The next day Meier dialed Ascension Health hoping to get approval to bring Czaplewski to a drive-through COVID-19 testing site. Czaplewski’s breathing was now so faint that a friend with a nursing background advised him to assume the medically recognized prone position. He moved from the bed to the floor, laying face down with his head turned to one side.
Meier was connected to an internist in Las Vegas who listened as she described the situation and pleaded for help. He told her he suspected meningitis and called 911 himself. Finally, a health care worker responded with the urgency Meier had been demanding for days. Now, it brought her no comfort.
“I was destroyed,” she says. “It sounded like he was going to die.”
With sirens approaching, she placed a video call to Czaplewski’s children.
“I just said, ‘Finally, somebody who’s going to help us, you guys.’ I didn’t tell them at the time what the doctor had told me. I just wanted them to be able to talk to their dad,” she says. “I saw their faces and they looked so scared. … That’s the worst call I ever had to make in my life.”
Moments later, the paramedics who came to help were backing out. Fearing Czaplewski would contaminate their ambulance, they recommended Meier transport him herself.
Meier was livid. In her head, she screamed, “Get out of my driveway.”
THE PARAMEDICS LEFT. Meier turned her black GMC Terrain into an ambulance, loaded Czaplewski into the SUV in pouring rain, and drove to the makeshift tent set up outside the emergency entrance of Aurora West Allis Medical Center. Arriving back at home, she posted on Facebook, “I’ve never been the religious kind, but I am asking you to pray. Pat was just admitted to West Allis Memorial Hospital. I love him so much!”
Czaplewski continued to deteriorate. His fever spiked to 104 degrees, prompting the staff to pack his body in ice packs. The next day his oxygen numbers fell to dangerous levels and he was rushed into the intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator. The day after that a test confirmed he was positive for COVID-19.
Back in New Berlin, Meier tried to keep busy. She wrote more Facebook updates:
First it is important to know that in times of crisis that there are people in the wings. Not sure how but they know you need them and they just come forward and help. Know that it may be those you least expect. And also know it is ok to ask for help. Today would not have been possible without the continued support of my tribe! Virtual hugs!
While she was “thankful” for the care Czaplewski received while hospitalized, she remained angry at the Aurora phone operators and ambulance crew. She consulted an attorney but abandoned that course after learning a lawsuit likely would do no good. She was able, however, to secure some concessions from an Aurora manager about the COVID-19 hotline protocol, which assuaged her somewhat.
The Waukesha County Health Department called repeatedly and asked her to fill out a lengthy questionnaire documenting Czaplewski’s movements in the days before he exhibited symptoms. It was implied that Meier would follow Czaplewski’s path, with sickness manifesting in her at any moment. She was instructed to check her temperature twice a day and report back to the health department. As she filled out the paperwork though, she recalled being sick in February – ill enough to visit a doctor’s office where she was diagnosed with bronchitis on Feb. 27.
“Now I can’t help but wonder if I was the source,” Meier says.
There were also practical concerns to consider. Czaplewski was nowhere close to out of the woods. The pair had been together for 20 years, but because they were unmarried and had no wills or medical directives, they were extremely vulnerable. Alone at home, she sketched out plans for a future without Pat.
FOR THE NEXT SEVEN DAYS, Czaplewski drifted in and out of consciousness. Hours passed while an unwatched TV screen flickered nearby.
“I didn’t realize I was in that ventilator for as long as it was,” he says. “If you told me it was three days, I’d believe that.”
He was sedated and restrained. Medical personnel, fearing he might try to tear the breathing tube out of his lungs, tied his hands to the side of the bed. He tried typing a message on his phone. It took an hour.
He was uncomfortable, but he wasn’t terrified. A previous brush with death in 1991 set his expectations for what dying would be like. It happened when the bike he was riding lost its front tire and he faceplanted. “Within seconds, I had a near-death experience,” he says. “That didn’t happen this time.” There were no premonitions he was hovering close to an approaching death. “It sounds odd, but that was comforting.”
On April 2, a doctor informed Meier that Czaplewski needed to remain on the ventilator for another couple of weeks. She insisted that she be allowed to see him. A nurse talked her into a Facetime call and helped set it up. He couldn’t talk. Because Czaplewski needed extensive facial surgery after his bike accident, the medical staff now needed to insert the ventilator tube through his mouth instead of his nose. Meier didn’t care. It was enough to see him and communicate through hand signals. She asked if he felt better. He gave a thumbs down.
Another day brought another change of plan. By now Meier knew the shift changes at the ward and learned the best times to call. She rang up expecting a routine check-in only to learn the ventilator was about to be removed. It seemed too soon. She again asked her Facebook audience to pray as he was moved to a special room and extubated.
Czaplewski spent one more night in the ICU for observation, and another in a separate, calmer wing of the hospital. A doctor later told him that 84% of COVID-19 patients who are placed on ventilators die on them. He beat the odds. Meier ate Rosati’s pizza ordered by concerned friends and fell asleep for seven hours.
On April 5, Meier learned that he was about to be discharged. Pat was coming home. She took to Facebook to organize a last-minute, socially distanced welcome home party. Czaplewski arrived to find 20 cars lined up outside his house, family and friends cheering from inside the windows. Some honked and flashed their lights. Others held up handmade signs.
LIFE STILL HAS NOT RETURNED TO NORMAL. There have been times in the days following his discharge when Meier is ready to take Czaplewski back to the hospital. He would speak a few words and need to catch his breath. It will be weeks before he can walk up and down stairs without feeling fatigued.
“Sometimes I just stare at him. It’s still really surreal to me,” she says.
The Facebook updates continue:
Learned that muscle spasms are really common after you have been bedridden for a number of days. Started in the back the day after coming home and last night and today have moved to the chest. Valium and Tylenol are our BFF’s. Breathing is comparable to yesterday and just keep reminding ourselves this is a marathon not a sprint.
LIKE THE REST OF THE WORLD, the couple remain paralyzed in the face of a raging epidemic. They worry about the health of their family and friends.
“Right now we’re hearing news of a good friend of mine and his wife who are both feeling sick,” Czaplewski says, choking up. “I’m hurting inside so much now for my friend because I’m afraid my story is going to become his story.”
They are still traumatized by their rebuffed attempts to seek medical intervention, and are upset over what they see as a political fight about the coronavirus response.
“I’m on the right-wing side, if that matters,” Czaplewski says. “I thought, ‘This virus is kind of a joke. Unless you’re in your 70s there’s nothing to worry about.’ Clearly, that was the wrong opinion.”
While in the hospital, he was given the experimental drug cocktail of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, which he credits with his recovery. He wishes people wouldn’t reflexively dismiss the treatment whenever the president brings it up.
“Not because I’m a Trump supporter, which I am. But because it saved my life,” he attests.
Saturday, April 11, marks Czaplewski’s 57th birthday. He’s still too weak to celebrate by doing more than relaxing, but Meier planned a surprise anyway. She ordered dinner from one of his favorite restaurants, the Butler Inn of Pewaukee, and put together a photo slideshow of their 2017 trip to Iceland.
Czaplewski wants to celebrate his recovery with more travel once the world returns to normal. He’s already picked a destination.
“Amy hatched it for me, and I like it. I’ve been to every state except for Alaska. She said if I get out of there, we’re going. So that’s what we’re doing.”