With more than 10,390 positive cases of COVID-19 to date, according to state data, Erie County has the highest number of virus infections in all of upstate and Western New York. Today on “The Toll,” a South Cheektowaga couple recounts how they overcame the virus together but apart.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 13,600 people across Western New York. The virus has also claimed the lives of at least 778 people in our region. WBFO’s “The Toll: Western New York Stories of Loss & Survival in a Pandemic” will air weekly on Thursdays during Morning Edition in August and September, telling some of the personal stories behind those numbers.
A popular Williamsville restaurant was bustling back on an evening in early March when Lori and Gary Gniewecki went out to dinner there with seven of their closest friends. The novel coronavirus was a new phenomenon at the time and the couple soon regretted their decision to eat out.
“It was packed like sausages and we even said when we were sitting at the table to each other that, ‘This doesn't, you know, seem right,’” Lori said.
Both Lori, 58, and Gary, 60, started to show symptoms of the virus just a few days after the dinner. Their infection can’t be definitively traced to the restaurant, since it’s possible that a member of their party was already carrying the virus before the meal, but everyone else they dined with got sick shortly thereafter, too.
“We just thought, you know, if they're not closing anything around here… and then boom! All hell broke loose,” Lori said.
Gary’s symptoms started with a sinus infection that the Gnieweckis said antibiotics couldn’t kick. Within days, he also developed a fever, chills and “horrible” cough.
“They [medical workers] did a CT [computerized tomography] scan and told him he had double pneumonia,” Lori said. “They admitted him and then they booted me out the door.”
Finding himself battling the virus alone at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Gary said he couldn’t help but think about the lives that COVID-19 had already taken.
“I was watching the news they had on there, and I was watching, like, people going in and three days later dying and stuff, and I'm [thinking] ‘What's going to happen with me?’”
Meanwhile, Lori was battling a milder, but still fierce, case of the virus at home.
“She had the stay-at-home version when I was in the hospital,” Gary said. Lori added, however, that her battle with the virus was much different than her husband’s. Gary fought pneumonia and a complete lack of taste, while Lori’s main symptom was crippling exhaustion.
“I love steak,” Gary said. “Give me a steak dinner and I wouldn't even eat it because it didn't taste well.”
“I just laid down, probably 14 hours of the day–I had to lay down,” Lori said. “It was a weird kind of tired that was just very strange.”
As both Gary and Lori struggled with their own symptoms, the couple also said they were constantly worrying about each other.
“It was a little bit scary to wonder what was going on with him and not being able to really go there or anything,” Lori said. And the only way the couple could contact each other was with Gary’s hospital phone, which he reserved just for Lori.
“I didn't want anybody else calling me,” Gary said. “I just wanted Lori to call me.”
“I just kept saying, ‘Soon this will all be over, you know, this is going to end and we'll come out on the other side,’” Lori said.
But to make things even harder, Lori said the couple was just getting to spend quality time together before they got separated.
“It was really weird, because we both just retired,” she told WBFO with a laugh. “So, we were just getting used to being around each other.”
Gary was released from the hospital after about a week. As of early September, both he and Lori said they continue to fight lasting symptoms of COVID-19. Gary, for example, is still coping with residual lung inflammation that makes him feel like he has “a little heaviness on my chest.”
“I just have a problem with energy still,” Lori added. “I feel like I don't have the same energy level I had before.”
When asked to describe their experience with the virus in three words or less, Gary didn’t hesitate: “Not fun.”
“You stole my answer, Gar,” Lori said. “That's what I keep telling everybody when they ask me questions: It wasn't fun. It was worrisome and exhausting.”
Both Gnieweckis also said the scariest part was not knowing how bad their symptoms were going to get. Still, they consider themselves to be lucky.
“When my husband did get a little upset, I would say, ‘You know, we have so much to be thankful for because you survived. You lived and I lived,’” Lori said. “We are okay and so many people are not okay.”
Now that they’re recovered enough, Lori said she recently finished repainting the bathroom of their home in South Cheektowaga. Gary said he’s been able to do some yard work and hopes to get back to a favorite activity—bowling—soon. After six months, the Gnieweckis are finally starting to enjoy their retirement.