Jesse Vanderhoof INTV
Coronavirus survivor describes his battle with delirium
04:05 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Cookie Villarreal was finally home. She had beaten the novel coronavirus but she couldn’t get dressed by herself or even raise her arms to brush her hair.

“By the grace of God I was able to get off (the ventilator),” said the 69-year-old woman from Lorain, Ohio.

Villarreal is among thousands of people who have survived after contracting Covid-19. As of Thursday, estimates indicate that more than 710,000 people have recovered from Covid-19 worldwide, according to data collected by John Hopkins University. The actual figure is likely to be higher because the data cover only confirmed cases.

The survivors are old and young, celebrities, health care workers, faith leaders and parents. They battled the virus while hospitalized or isolated at home and were able to make it through.

Here’s what people on the other side of the pandemic are doing:

They are learning how to breathe and walk again

Jesse Vanderhoof could barely move with a walker around his home in Blaine County, Idaho, and going to his upstairs bedroom was out of the question.

For the 40-year-old nurse, the skiing and hiking trips with his wife feel like distant memories. Ten days after leaving the hospital, walking only a couple of blocks leaves him extremely exhausted.

“You want to talk about humbling and challenging for a man, that’s as tough as it gets right there,” Vanderhoof said of his week on a ventilator after he contracted coronavirus while working on Covid-19 testing tents.

Vanderhoof’s wife, Emily, said she’s slept on the floor while he slept on the couch to help him walk to the bathroom at night and has seen him battle the “ICU delirium,” an acute brain condition particularly common in patients who are sedated and on a ventilator for extended periods of time.

Jesse Vanderhoof stands outside his home in Blaine County, Idaho.

“He didn’t understand why the world was at war with (Covid-19), why health care workers were heroes, why he was involved,” Emily, 34, said. “We had the same conversation for four days straight.”

Some survivors, such as David Lat, say one of their biggest challenges has been learning “how to breathe again” after spending 17 days in a New York hospital and six days on a ventilator.

“It’s not happily ever after, but it’s better than the alternative,” the lawyer and founder of the blog “Above the Law” told CNN.

The ventilator may have caused some damage to his vocal chords, Lat says, noting his hoarse voice, but “I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Leah Blomberg’s muscles are weak after being in a medically-induced coma and on a ventilator for nine days. She says she feels lucky to be alive, but what used to be a 15-minute shower now takes her 45 minutes.

Leah Blomberg

“The recovery is probably the worst,” Blomberg said. “Basically it’s having to learn to walk again, because your muscles … it’s like you’ve never used them before.”

For those who were not hospitalized, the recovery at home can vary. Some say the process is not immediate and it has taken them weeks to recover their stamina, while others say it takes from days to weeks to get past the fever.

They are reuniting with their families

When Sandra Sandoli embraced her husband and daughters, it was a hug like no other. It was their own Easter Sunday miracle.

“I cried. It was a hug of relief and happiness but also of sadness for all we are all going through now. So many emotions at once,” said Sandoli, 52, a retired teacher in Fair Haven, New Jersey.

For more than a month, Sandoli was quarantined in her bedroom after falling ill while visiting her parents in Delaware and testing positive for Covid-19. She couldn’t see her parents, who contracted the virus through her, or comfort her two daughters who flew home from college.

Sandra Sandoli (center) and her daughters pose at their Fair Haven, New Jersey, home.

They would leave her meals and tea by the door and pick up the empty dishes, wearing a mask and gloves, by the end of the day. They’d talk over the phone with her or while standing in different rooms.

Sandoli overcame the fever and regained her strength but a lingering cough worried her. Afraid of the virus and unable to get tested again, Sandoli said she and her doctor decided she would wait indefinitely until the cough was gone.

Sandoli left her bedroom Sunday and reunited with her family. They walked side by side for a few miles.

“It felt a little surreal,” she said. “The simplest thing like taking a walk was the biggest deal.”

They cooked and sat together at their dinner table eating fish, mashed potatoes and vegetables. They took a Zumba class online together.

“When I hugged my daughters, I didn’t want it to end. I will never take those hugs for granted,” Sandoli added. “We made it.”

They are actively helping others

Nicole Chayet and her husband have been knocking on stranger’s doors around New York and bringing them bags full of groceries and essentials for the past week.

“I want to help others. I survived the virus and I feel strong,” Chayet, 33, told CNN. “I’m not afraid of going outside to help other people.”

Nicole Chayet has been delivering groceries to strangers around New York after recovering from coronavirus.

When Chayet, director of media relations for the New York City Football Club, and her husband were ill, she said she was afraid of telling other people or even asking others to take care of their 22-month-old daughter while they recovered.

Now, they are splitting their time between working from home, connecting with people suffering from coronavirus or their relatives, and trying to help others.

Earlier this week, Chayet gave a blood sample to a study conducted by Mount Sinai Hospital, aiming to use antibodies to treat coronavirus patients. She said she wants to volunteer in more studies and has since received messages from people in states as far away as Arizona and California asking whether she could find a way to help their loved ones.

Other survivors are mobilizing, donating blood or planning to help as soon as they make a full recovery.

Diana Berrent, a photographer in Port Washington, New York, who recovered from Covid-19, created Survivor Corps, a Facebook group aimed at helping people post and find research and donation opportunities for survivors. The group now has more than 30,000 members.

“I’d like to think of it as a superhero – me and all the other survivors have these internally-built hazmat suits,” Berrent told CNN.

Even Vanderhoof, the nurse in Idaho who is still slowly trying to regain his stamina, is looking forward to getting back to work – even if he doesn’t know when that would be possible.

“If I’ve learned anything in this experience with medical problems, it’s that I want to help people more than I ever have before,” Vanderhoof said.

What has been one of his most vulnerable times has become motivation for Vanderhoof to keep living and ultimately defend others from the pandemic.

CNN’s Eric Levenson, Paul Vercammen, Hollie Silverman and Holly Yan contributed to this report.