Perla Rodriguez pulled up the family van in front of Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara on Dec. 17. Her husband, Rolando Bonilla, was in the passenger seat struggling to breathe.
Bonilla, 42, a communications consultant for the Ravenswood City and Sequoia Union High school districts, had contracted COVID-19 from a family member in his social bubble.
The first week of his illness was marked by fever and aches, he said.
"I end up taking a nosedive where I'm literally gasping for air," Bonilla, chief strategy officer for Voler Strategic Advisors, said in a phone call on Jan. 6 from his home in the eastern foothills of San Jose.
Although Bonilla is feeling better now, he still struggled to catch his breath while talking and is struggling with the lasting effects of the virus. "I couldn't get out of bed and take more than two steps because it felt like I ran a marathon and was completely winded," he said.
He had what Rodriguez describes as an "ugly cough" and his blood oxygen levels were unhealthily low.
Because of restrictions implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Rodriguez couldn't help her husband into the hospital. She dropped him off and said, "I love you" and "call me to keep me posted," and watched as he checked in with a security guard to make sure he didn't faint or fall.
When he sat down in the emergency room, the nursing staff knew he needed to be admitted.
"They said, 'You're not going home tonight,'" he said.
Bonilla thinks he likely contracted the virus from Rodriguez's uncle, who died of complications from COVID-19 the same day Bonilla landed in the hospital. They say the uncle contracted the virus after a brief interaction with a relative for whom he was running an errand. His death was part of what spurred Bonilla to seek medical care.
Rodriguez urged him to go to the hospital, telling him to take his health seriously given that the virus had just killed their family member. "I told him I can't do anything for you here (at home) other than call 911. ... He was not going to make any progress on Robitussin and Tylenol," she said.
Bonilla's three children — his 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old twin boys — were asymptomatic, but his wife became sick in early December, about a week before Bonilla fell ill. Rodriguez's symptoms didn't progress past a fever, aches and exhaustion.
Feeling like his lungs were 'on fire'
During Bonilla's week in the hospital, doctors treated him with the antiviral drug Remdesivir intravenously for five days. He said within 20 minutes of taking Remdesivir he felt markedly better. The hospital also administered steroids for seven days to reduce the fluid buildup in his lungs. On day four, the steroids kicked in, he said.
Bonilla, who says his asthma probably further complicated his bout with COVID-19, spent most of his days in the hospital sleeping and doing breathing exercises blowing into a plastic tube that measures your air flow to expand his lung capacity. He hardly had time to even think about the fact that he couldn't have visitors because he felt so drained.
"It felt literally like I ran a marathon, but every day," he said. "I didn't want to talk. I had 10- to 15-minute spurts on FaceTime with my kids but then I wanted to get back to sleep. I picked up the phone to try and the person on the other end told me to save my energy."
One good sign was that Bonilla was never hooked up to a ventilator and said that COVID-19 patients don't want to end up on these machines. The ventilator itself can "do damage to the lung tissue based on how much pressure is required to help oxygen get processed by the lungs," Dr. Tiffany Osborn, a critical care specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, told NPR in April.
Back at home, Rodriguez said she felt frightened over Bonilla's condition. One night, Rodriguez became alarmed when Bonilla started sending his friends and family members heartfelt letters.
"It freaked me out," said Rodriguez, who has been married to Bonilla for 12 years. "He talked about how much he loved me; what our life together was like. I can't go back to look (at the letter); it makes me cry. I thought, 'Oh my God, he's doing that just in case' if he doesn't get a chance to say that, it's in writing."
She had just recovered from the virus herself, but she stayed strong for her small children. She had moments of sheer sadness, she said. She was grieving the loss of her uncle, a man who her children viewed as a grandfather figure, while her husband was battling the same virus that took her uncle's life.
"I did my very best to hold things together," she said. "People came out of the woodwork (to help). Co-workers, friends and family members brought us groceries and food."
Rodriguez started to feel more positive about Bonilla's condition when he began talking about the future and his work. She saw glimmers of his usual hopeful spirit.
Bonilla left the hospital on Christmas Eve with an oxygen machine.
He said not only did doctors say he was ready to go home, but nurses told him the hospital was beginning to reach capacity and he felt he needed to give up his room for someone who had a greater need to be hospitalized.
"He is a vibrant 42-year-old, strong and tall, and he came home with an oxygen tank, taking his steps slowly," Rodriguez said. "It was hard to watch; none of us have ever seen him like that."
Bonilla noted that you can only have so much optimism when you can't breathe. The nurses reassured him he was on the right path and told him to "fight through it" despite his lungs feeling like they were on fire.
"That was what I needed to hear during that moment," he said. "As strong as you are — I'm 6-foot-6 (inches tall) — the virus is ultimately determining what it wants to do with you."
'This is not the flu'
Bonilla wants people to know that contracting COVID-19 is much more serious than the flu, despite some people saying warnings of the health impacts of the coronavirus are overblown.
"This is not the flu," he said. "If you feel as if this is the flu — that's phase one of COVID, and if you stay in phase one, consider yourself very fortunate. I've had the flu; this is nothing like the flu. It's literally a full-on assault on your ability to breathe. Doctors are simply trying to manage you in the hospital."
Bonilla said that his lungs felt like "a spigot was slowly being turned off" inside of them.
"My lungs felt very cold," he said. "Taking air in, it felt like ice into my lungs. It's the most uncomfortable feeling ever."
Rodriguez said some people miss the window to get more serious medical care, making it impossible to recover. Bonilla was lucky to get treatment during that critical time, she said.
'Unmanageable volume' of cases
There is a huge disconnect between what people see on their TV screens and what's actually happening in hospitals, Bonilla said.
"People were coming in every second," he said. "It felt like a battleground. We (patients) looked at each other and you could feel the stress that person was going through; I gave little supportive looks."
Bonilla said he had a realization: When you're being treated, the doctors and nurses are doing everything they can, but the situation has "completely gotten out of everyone's hands."
"They are doing what (they) can just to save lives, but the volume is just unmanageable," he said. "That struck me in my experience."
The real story of the pandemic is the heroism of front-line health care workers, he said.
"They were kind, humane and compassionate from the moment I walked into the hospital to the day I left; they call to check in on me," he said. "They were honest with me about their fears and their concerns. I realized they, too, were stressed. They had loved ones in their families going through COVID, co-workers going through COVID and were caring for these people within the same hospital they were working."
Bonilla thinks back to some of the people he saw in the ER who were in even greater distress than he was.
"Seeing person after person coming in, I saw myself hoping and praying for their speedy recovery," he said. "You could see and feel people who were literally on the line of something catastrophic and fatal for them. As a human being, I almost felt like it was my duty to fight harder (to get out of the hospital) to ensure people coming in pretty bad (shape) had that help."
Bonilla has a hard time seeing people politicize a crisis that is "so clearly medical."
"There's a lot of pain and suffering out there right now," he said. "It will take all of us coming together as one to get out of this situation. We won't come out unscathed."
The 'path forward'
Although Bonilla is no longer using the oxygen machine at home, he still loses his balance, his heart rate is accelerated and he isn't able to breathe normally.
"It's like running up and down a basketball court," he said. "A lot of these symptoms don't necessarily go away right away. I have to see how much damage occurred and how it will impact me long term."
He exercises his lungs by walking around his house and continues with his breathing exercises. He wasn't able to get out of bed until around Jan. 2.
"The path forward is going to take time," he said. "I embrace that like a challenge. Every day I do something to help me move this along. There's things I like to do, like soccer and basketball, that I can't do anyway (because of the stay-at-home order). If they were open, that would mentally be tougher."
Bonilla said people need to work even harder to wear masks, wash their hands and stay home.
"I've always been optimistic and positive and this experience has really elevated that," he said. "I appreciate and understand further the notion that tomorrow is not promised. Whatever you do in life enjoy every second of it before we know it, it could end."