The Toll: Surviving the virus

Aug 20, 2020

Fever. Cough. Shortness of breath. The most common symptoms of the novel coronavirus are well-known by now. But in the third episode of WBFO’s “The Toll,” survivors of COVID-19 describe the more complicated physical and psychological impacts of battling the virus.


The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 12,000 people across Western New York. The virus has also claimed the lives of at least 770 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.

Back in March, Dianne Britain’s downstairs neighbor helped her move a refrigerator into her new apartment in South Buffalo. Her best friend was visiting at the time and she helped, too. Then they found out that the neighbor had come down with COVID-19.

“So, it was a given,” Britain said. “The two of us were about to experience what the virus was like, and that had its own scariness to it.”

Dianne Britain, a longtime community organizer, spoke at the first Women’s March in Buffalo’s Niagara Square in 2017.
Credit Courtesy of Dianne Britain

Britain is a community organizer at the Coalition for Economic Justice, a Buffalo organization with the motto, “Kicking Ass for the Working Class.” The same week as the fridge move-in, she’d been driving a van full of about 10 people on the way to Albany when four lawmakers canceled their meetings with the group as the state Capitol started to shut down because of the virus. So, when Britain found out about her neighbor, she said she was more worried about the other people she might have exposed rather than herself.

“It's like that quick thinking of, ‘Okay, where have I been and who have I been around?’” she said. “And the responsible thing to do is to reach out and let all of these people know.”

After those difficult phone calls were made, Britain, who is 46, said she and her friend settled in for what they expected to be nothing worse than the normal flu. However, the virus had other plans.

“It was like every day was a new symptom, and it was–there were definitely a few days in there where I wasn't sure that I wasn't going to die,” Britain said.

The simple act of breathing, especially, became dangerously difficult.

“I remember sitting in the living room and just having trouble catching my breath. And then I went to the bathroom–which is, like, not that far from the living room–and feeling like I was gonna pass out by the time I got there. And I just could not catch my breath for the life of me,” Britain told WBFO. “And to think that I was gonna go out by not being able to breathe.”

Britain also dealt with bouts of blurry vision, joint pain and the ever-present exhaustion that many COVID-19 survivors describe.

Stevo Johnson, a Buffalo business owner, told WBFO he struggled with extreme mental and physical exhaustion during his battle with COVID-19.
Credit Courtesy of Stevo Johnson/Volney Powell, Powerful Creations Photography.

“I was so tired to the point that I couldn't even lift my hand or head off the pillow,” Stevo Johnson, 45, said.

“We [my wife and I] literally laid in bed for mostly, the whole mid-March all the way through the end of April,” Darren Lisicki, 50, told WBFO. “Like, never got out of bed.”

“I'm grateful to be alive now. But I'm also in, like, a constant state of pain and fatigue,” Michael O’Connor, 43, said. “43 is really not that old and I had no underlying health conditions, and this thing almost killed me.”

Johnson is the owner of Matti Rouse, a custom leather apparel shop in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village. Like Britain, he said there were days when he thought he might not survive.

“You have all these different emotions, and the first emotion you have is like, ‘Am I going to die?’” Johnson said, adding that faith helped him get through the fear. “There was something that was inward, inside of me, that kept pushing me. There was like the spirit of God to say, ‘Okay, you gotta get up. You gotta fight.’”

Michael O’Connor (pictured with his wife, Kathryn), a Kenmore resident, was kept alive on a ventilator for 25 days during his battle with COVID-19.
Credit Courtesy of Michael O’Connor

O’Connor, of Kenmore, is a nurse at the Niagara Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. His symptoms started on a Sunday and by Friday he was intubated and put on a ventilator. The machine kept him alive for 25 days, but O’Connor said it was actually his family who struggled the most while he was in the hospital.

“My wife with the two babies, you know, like, they're the ones who suffered,” he said. “I didn't really know how bad it was until I woke up and they took me off the vents.”

O’Connor and Johnson also said the virus tested their mental health as well as physical well-being.

“It was mentally frustrating and exhausting because you have something that, it’s new to your body, it’s foreign to you,” Johnson said. “You don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and I think the biggest thing [was] that the anxiety was building [up to] when it gets to the point where you cannot breathe.”

“There's definitely some depression, there's definitely, you know: It's a psychological toll it takes on you,” O’Connor added. 

Darren Lisicki and his wife, Shannon, of Williamsville, both fell ill early in the coronavirus pandemic, though Shannon was never officially diagnosed with COVID-19.
Credit Courtesy of Darren Lisicki

Some survivors are also coping with major lasting complications, like heart problems. Lisicki, of Williamsville, is director of employment services at Cantalician Center, a learning center for children with disabilities. He said he never had any heart problems before his battle with the virus but has been struggling with cardiovascular complications ever since his diagnosis.

“Every day feels like every heartbeat could be my last one, and it takes a toll,” Lisicki said.

Lisicki’s road to recovery has already been about five months long, and that’s why he’s urging fellow Western New Yorkers to take the continued threat of the virus seriously.

“As long as everybody adheres to the rules of reopening, I'm confident that it's okay,” he said, “[but] I do feel that a lot of people don't feel like that. I'm nervous that these huge gatherings are going to create another major second wave [of infections].”

Similarly, Britain said she’s felt torn about her role organizing protests for racial justice this summer after getting cleared by her doctor. Still, she hopes that Western New York and the country comes out stronger on the other side of both the pandemic and systemic racism.

Dianne Britain, second from right, has been helping organize demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality against people of color in the Buffalo area since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
Credit Courtesy of Dianne Britain/Photo by Carmen Paul

“I hope that this brings people closer together even though we’ve been quarantined, and I hope that the fight for equality continues as much as it’s been,” she said. 

Most importantly, Britain said, we have to keep fighting for each other.