By Joe Fusco as told to Jennifer Clopton
Every Wednesday and Sunday, my close-knit, Italian American family – 20-30 of us – would gather for a home cooked meal at my mom’s.
We had been doing it for as long as I can remember. Those dinners bound us together. But in late February or early March, one of those dinners set off a chain of events that would end up devastating my family. That’s where we believe we unknowingly passed COVID-19 to each other.
All hell broke loose very quickly after that. One by one, my family members started getting sick – and dying unbelievably fast. Before all was said and done, at least 19 members of my family contracted COVID-19. Seven of us, including me, were hospitalized – all but one ended up on ventilators, fighting for our lives.
Five of my relatives died of the virus. My sister Rita, 56, was the second person in New Jersey to die from the virus. We also lost my mother Grace, 73, my brothers Carmine, 55, and Vinny, 53, and my aunt Ria, my mom’s sister.
I was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma when my mother and two of my siblings passed away. My wife had to break the news to me when I woke up.
There was no rhyme or reason to what happened to us. I was a strong, energetic, healthy guy with no preexisting conditions. And among those in our family who survived, I ended up being the sickest. And yet several of my relatives who are heavy smokers tested positive for the virus but remained asymptomatic. Some of my uncles who have other health issues experienced some symptoms but got better within days.
Those of us who survived still aren’t the same. I lost 55 pounds and am still fatigued. My sister Maria, was unconscious and on a ventilator for 19 days. While in a coma she had hallucinations that her 10-year-old daughter had died and so she kept fighting to wake up. When she finally did come out of the coma, it was with severe hand cramping and fatigue. We are both still in physical therapy, have numbness in our hands and some paralysis on our left side. I don’t know when, if ever, we’ll be fully recovered. Right now I just consider myself very lucky that we survived.
We’re all still struggling emotionally with the weight of our family’s loss too. My sister Toni, who was hospitalized but never needed a ventilator, is heartbroken not having our Mom and sister Rita to say good morning and good night to each day as they used to. Our whole family is still grieving and trying to process the fact that one family member after another passed, and there was nothing we could do but pray we wouldn’t lose others.
I wouldn’t wish this level of horror and loss on anyone else, so we’re doing all we can to help others. My family members are now donating plasma, and we’re involved in multiple COVID research projects, including one at Johns Hopkins Medicine, which is looking at the DNA and genetics of our family to see if scientists can figure out why the virus affected us so deeply.
While researchers try to figure that out, those of us who survived are trying to speak out whenever we can to share our story. We don’t want any other family to experience this kind of loss and the truth is – it could happen to anyone.
So the next time you hear someone say COVID is a hoax or no more serious than the flu, think of my family or better yet – tell them about us. My sisters, brothers and I were all strong and healthy before this happened, and it still killed two of my siblings and nearly took me. Now children and teens are getting sick too. How can anyone say this virus isn’t real and isn’t a threat when you see who it’s affecting and how it is devastating lives? It ravaged my family! I just don’t get it.
I’m here to tell you, when COVID affects you or someone you love – it is brutal. So do whatever you can to avoid it. For God’s sake, wear a mask! It infuriates me to hear people say that wearing a mask violates their civil liberties. That is ridiculous! We are in a global pandemic and wearing a mask saves lives. Pure and simple. It’s too late to save my family, but know - with that small, simple act, you could definitely save yours.
Joe Fusco lives in Freehold, NJ. He is a married father of 3. He and his remaining siblings and their families still gather together twice a week for a shared meal.