Surviving The Virus, Part 1: Police Commissioner Reflects On Harrowing 54-Day Experience
In the coming weeks, The Newtown Bee will be seeking and publishing local residents’ accounts of their own experiences with COVID-19. If you tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and would like to relate how you managed through symptoms and recovery — or would like to share your caregiving story and tips for others who may face grappling with the virus in the future — please e-mail Associate Editor John Voket at email@example.com — and he will respond to discuss how that coverage could be presented with appropriate sensitivity to those involved.
Today we bring you the first of a two-part interview with residents Neil and Jennifer Chaudhary.
Before settling in for the first of two extended conversations with The Newtown Bee about his own life-threatening experience with COVID-19, local Police Commissioner and former Legislative Council Vice Chairman Neil Chaudhary, along with his wife and caregiver in recovery, Jennifer, graciously expressed their thanks to God and their community for the support, prayers, and blessings they received over the 54 days between when Neil first began exhibiting symptoms and when he was finally pronounced negative.
“I’m not sure there is any way to convey the gratitude that we have, and the sense of support — we just never expected — and the sense of community I felt through this whole process,” Jennifer said during an April 10 call, shortly after Neil was released from the hospital where he spent an excruciating 12 days in Danbury Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) intubated on a ventilator.
“Neil and I have always been pretty open about how we feel about things, and each other,” said Jennifer, who serves on the Edmond Town Hall Board of Managers. “But for even a couple of people who have given a lot to their community, we were still very overwhelmed over what we were given back.”
Even 32 days later as he updated The Newtown Bee on his continuing recovery, Neil confessed, “I’m still [experiencing] the trauma of dealing with a near death experience.
“It’s still really scary,” he said. “I’m constantly worrying about everything from blood clots, to having a stroke, to ‘COVID Toe.’ I’m home, and not experiencing any more symptoms, but it’s the unknowns that are terrifying. Like yesterday — I got a cramp in my calf and wondered if that was part of my normal recovery, or a blood clot.”
The Chaudhary family’s COVID-19 experience began March 11-12 when, despite some misgivings, Neil traveled to Long Island to attend the wake and funeral of a close relative.
“At the time it wasn’t a hotspot,” Neil recalled. “And believe it or not, there weren’t that many people and it wasn’t like we were packed into the room together. On top of that [family members] of the deceased had a friend at the door handing out Clorox wipes to wipe things down with — and we were asked not to hug or shake hands.”
“In the timeline of all this, at that point the CDC was recommending crowds no larger than 50 to 100,” Jennifer added. “I think had it been even a week later he would have made the decision not to go, because things were changing pretty rapidly at the time.
“Even then, it was a tough decision to go — and there were a few people I did hug, which is regrettable,” Neil said. “But now that I’m somewhat out of the woods, I want to share my experience. I don’t want to do it by sounding preachy, but I’m 51, was in reasonably good health, and was nowhere near the danger zone. And there was no good reason I should have ended up in ICU on a ventilator. I’ve been left wondering why did it hit me so much worse than so many others?”
“Here’s someone who is intelligent, and who was following all the CDC guidelines at the time,” Jennifer said.
But within days of the Long Island trip, the Chaudharys learned that others attending had begun exhibiting symptoms of the virus, and at least eight others eventually tested positive for COVID-19.
“A couple of them even ended up in the hospital and received oxygen treatment, but nothing like my situation,” Neil said.
Neil first started exhibiting symptoms on March 15, just three days after returning from Long Island.
“He developed a fever that day, contacted the doctor, and was immediately told to self isolate,” Jennifer said. “The only thing he initially had was the fever, and eventually the loss of taste and smell.”
“The interesting thing was that I wasn’t showing any of the other standard COVID symptoms,” Neil said.
“What prompted me to get tested was my sister contacting me to say several other people at the services had tested positive. At that point, my doctor said even though he still didn’t think I had COVID, I should get tested,” he said. “I think I was one of the first people at the drive-through testing center, and that was March 19. And at the time, it took a full week before I was told I was positive — two days after I was admitted into the hospital.”
The Eventual Crash
While waiting anxiously for two, three, and four days after being tested, Neil regularly used a simple finger oximeter to measure his blood oxygen levels. But on March 22, his oxygen levels suddenly dropped, prompting Neil’s physician to send him for a chest x-ray.
“That was the first day I [revealed] publicly on a Facebook post that something was happening,” Jennifer recalled. “I literally had to drive up to the curb in front of the hospital, he got out of the car, and I drove away. We weren’t sure what was happening. We thought he was just going for a chest x-ray and some monitoring.”
The earlier March 24 post reads: “For the last 10 days we just found out today that my rock, Neil Chaudhary has been battling covid. Mostly at home but in the hospital since Sunday. Up until 3 hours ago he was being told he could come home in a 2-3 days. He is now being put in ICU, on a respirator for the next two weeks so his lungs can heal. Please, please, please pray for him. Please. We love him so much.”
“That’s how it started,” Neil continued. He was put on oxygen, and presumed positive based on the imaging, but still lacked the affirmation from his COVID test four days earlier.
Once the test revealed the unwanted news, Jennifer said, “Neil was given hydroxychloroquine. And about four hours later he was on a ventilator. That’s when I made my second post.”
That post read, “He just went to a pay his respect to someone who had past [sic] away. He did all the other things right before we were asked to stay away from groups of 100.
“For those that still think that this is no big deal or no worse than the flu, if you don’t listen and don’t stay home these are the text messages you could get or be sending. I had a brief 1 min call with him in the middle of this but that’s it, now I have to wait and just pray.”
That post also contained a series of text messages between Neil and Jennifer in which Neil conveyed his oxygen was not stabilizing, and he would be heading to the ICU where he was told he would be intubated.
“Scared but still feel good,” Neil texted, “I will be under. Once my lungs heal they will take me off and wake me...1-2 weeks under. I love you!!!!”
“OK, we love you,” Jennifer replied, “I need you Neil - you fight this... we are near [and] waiting for you. I am praying and I am loving you.”
Over the next few weeks, Neil’s journey toward eventual recovery played out in Jennifer’s frequent Facebook posts, like tens of thousands of others around Connecticut, the US, and the world — virtually all unfamiliar with one another but suffering through degrees of a shared experience.
A ‘Firestorm Of Prayer’
In the ensuing days and weeks, those first two posts generated almost 750 reactions and comments, countless personal messages, and a blizzard of calls and e-mails. But as far as Jennifer was concerned, each one of them and so many others who learned about her husband’s situation also prompted a massive chorus of prayers.
Within hours of her previous March 25 post, Jennifer had already begun expressing her gratitude and her call for even greater divine intervention.
“First I just want to say that I am overwhelmed and incredibly blessed by the love and support I have been given. I know Neil Chaudhary would be also. He is a big softie like that. I can’t thank you enough and it means so much more than you know. Your outpouring of love and prayers are what are giving me the strength that I need to get through these days and they will help him also. So thank you. This is not and will not be easy but I am not giving up.
“So many have asked what they can do. Please just keep praying, sending love and good vibes. Ask your friends, and church’s [sic] to pray or whatever it is that they do, because he absolutely needs it.”
Jennifer later admitted, “when he was there and I was here and couldn’t leave you feel totally helpless.”
“In any other situation I would have been there,” she said. “So the only thing I had to do was pray, and rely on my faith. And the only thing I could think of was to ask everyone else to pray as I set out to [generate] what I called the firestorm of prayer.”
Jennifer explained that she had grown up in a tiny community as an Independent Baptist, and that the power of prayer was a big part of her upbringing. As a youngster in rural Ohio, Jennifer said she was part of efforts to support neighbors who experienced their own hardships.
“Those were things we just did,” she said. “Everybody just took care of everybody and prayer was very important. And later on, Neil and I had experiences where we believed there was some divine intervention. We’d been through 9-11, we’d been through health scares, and obviously 12/14.
“So I asked for prayer, and decided to put out those text messages because I wanted people to understand how critically important it was to adhere to the CDC guidelines,” she continued. “Even if you were doing everything you thought was right, but you are not social distancing, you could be in my situation.”
The first of two March 26 posts continued to promote a widening circle of faith.
“For those that are asking or not sure if you should, yes share my posts if you want and when you do, i just ask that you include a request for people to pray. Also, Yes, please add him to your prayer lists at your respective churches. I am not to proud to ask the world to pray for him however it needs to happen. Just don’t stop.”
The second added a request for additional support.
“I know everyone is asking for an update, the doc took longer to call today than normal. They are so overwhelmed and busy. Please pray for them also.”
And by March 27, she posted: “ I am seeing that firestorm of prayer from all over the world and Neil is feeling it!!!! Please keep those prayers coming and thank you from the bottom of my heart for caring so much!
“I want to take a moment to say thank you to my amazing neighbors for the flowers, sweet treats and gifts and my dear friend Bridget for her thoughtful gifts she left at our doorstep. And all of those reaching out via text or email or sending us dinners. Thank you so much for your kindness, generosity and most of all your support during this very difficult time. So many people are going through this right now and I can tell you, it helps to know people are behind you lifting you up and helping you pray for your loved one. It means so much more than you know.”
In the second part of the Chaudharys “Surviving The Virus” story, we will cover Neil’s continued recovery process and how his family responded to the challenges as he transitioned from ICU through his remaining hospitalization, and eventual return home.