When Debbie Buonopane was infected with the novel coronavirus earlier this month, the emergency room nurse relayed to her family that she didn’t think she would last long.A Navy veteran and breast cancer survivor, Buonopane had been treating coronavirus patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston when she began to experience some of the virus’s symptoms.
At one point, the pain in her knees and ankles was so extreme that it felt as if someone was stabbing her with a knife, she said.“I told my mother, ‘I’m going to die,’” the 58-year-old recalled to reporters.So when Buonopane survived the virus and exited Brigham and Women’s on Thursday afternoon, a walk she has made countless times in her 31 years working there, it was nothing short of a celebration.
Surrounded by dozens of masked doctors, nurses and hospital staffers cheering her every movement, Buonopane held up the cardboard get-well card from the co-workers who treated her at her place of employment.“You have my heart!” she yelled out from underneath her yellow mask to the staffers, tapping her hand against her chest.Just before a police escort accompanied her from the hospital to her home in Quincy, Mass., Buonopane vowed to not only return to work soon but to treat covid-19 patients once she was cleared for duty.“When I get better, I am going back to my job,” she told the Boston Globe.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, she added, “When I get back to work, I’m going to make sure I take care of everyone the same way.”The scene was the latest public display of gratitude from health-care workers to patients who have survived the virus, which has killed nearly 50,000 people in the United States. It was also a reminder of the real danger that staffers face every day while on the front lines against the pandemic.
Since the start of the outbreak, the number of American health-care workers with covid-19 has shot upward. An analysis released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 9,000 health-care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, The Washington Post’s Ariana Eunjung Cha reported.
The analysis found that most of those infected were workers who are white, female and in their 40s.Boston has become a hot spot for infections; Vice President Pence recently said the White House was closely watching the Boston area. On Sunday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said the state was “right in the middle of the surge.” As of early Friday, the state had more than 46,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 2,360 deaths.
It remains unclear where or how Buonopane came down with the virus. She said she initially did not wear a mask while treating patients but eventually wore a mask and personal protective equipment, according to the Globe.As more Brigham and Women’s employees have been infected in recent weeks, the hospital has adjusted its safety measures to help curb the rate of infection.
As WBUR reported, new infections among Brigham and Women’s health-care staffers have dropped since it was mandated on March 25 that they wear masks, going from around 12 or 14 a day to about eight. Michael Klompas, the hospital’s epidemiologist, told the outlet that the rate of new infections among employees dipped to about six a day once patients were also directed to wear masks on April 6.
Buonopane’s covid-19 story started with chills and a runny nose in the first week of April, according to NBC Boston. The symptoms soon intensified in the form of a 102-degree fever and a loss of smell and taste.After she tested positive, she self-quarantined at her home in Quincy.
But the situation grew dire, and the nurse found herself struggling to breathe. Her deteriorating health rocked the family.“I was very scared for her, because some days she was very sick,” her husband, Jool Goncalves, told the Patriot Ledger. “I prayed for her a lot.”She eventually checked into another hospital but decided last week that she wanted to be treated at a facility that felt more familiar: her workplace.“I thought, ‘If I am going to die, I am going to die in my hospital where I’ve been for 31 years,’” she said, according to the Globe.For nine days, Buonopane felt helpless in her transition from coronavirus nurse to patient at the hospital she’s called home.
She was unable to do everyday things that came easy to her, like brushing her teeth or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But the nurse credited her colleagues for picking her up when she needed it the most.“One night, a nurse came in and she brushed my hair out for me. I couldn’t even breathe,” she said after she was released.
She added, “They were so good to me.”It wasn’t until she signed up for a treatment with the anti-viral drug Remdesivir that she began to see her condition improve, the Globe reported. According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a majority of a small group of patients showed improvements after being treated with remdesivir.
The National Institutes of Health suggested in a separate report that the drug had halted the progression of COVID-19 in monkeys.While she isn’t sure how much it helped and stressed that the drug needed more testing, she told the Globe that she believes it played a role in her recovery.“I think it helped me get my feet on the ground,” she said.
As the police escort turned onto Rhoda Street, neighbors in masks and holding signs reading, “Welcome home, Debbie,” lined the sidewalks to greet their local hero. After thanking police for getting her home in record time, Buonopane’s 18-year-old son, Nicholas, handed her a bouquet of flowers from a distance.“I wish I could hug you,” he told her.
Also standing at a distance was her mother, Anne, who believed in the emergency room nurse’s will to get through the virus.“You have to have faith, and I had faith that she wouldn’t die,” the 85-year-old mother said to WCVB. “She’s a fighter.”While speaking to media on her front lawn, Buonopane spotted her mother and was almost instantly overwhelmed. She waved from a safe distance, saying how she wish she could hug her mom. But she was also thankful she was wrong about her earlier prediction of death.“I’m so happy she didn’t have to bury me,” she said.