Waterford — MaryLou Gannotti, who is slowly emerging from a bout of COVID-19, wants people to know that the disease can ambush you without warning, even if you are the picture of health.
If ever there were a healthy family, the Gannottis would be it. MaryLou described herself, husband Greg, 56, and her two sons, Jake, 19, and Luke, 14, as “a family of fitness enthusiasts” who participate in — and in the case of Greg, coach — wrestling and enjoy outdoor activities, including paddleboarding.
But in late December of 2020, all four came down with COVID-19.
MaryLou also wants people to know “that it takes an encounter that can last one second, 30 minutes, an hour, but if you think you’re safe with that very good friend, you very well may not be.”
How it happened
The Gannottis suspect they contracted COVID-19 from a friend of Greg’s, since they had spent some time together. MaryLou said her son started clearing his throat almost immediately after Christmas, though he didn’t have a cough. This seemed somewhat strange, but she didn’t think much of it.
Then, on Dec. 28, MaryLou got up to go to work at Coastal Connecticut Research, a medical clinic in New London. She said she felt fatigued upon waking but attributed this feeling to being the mom of the family and recently finishing the holidays. “I’m the one who cooks, cleans, shops. So I said, ‘You know what, I’m just wiped out.’ I thought I might’ve had the blues because I didn’t get to see my mom or other relatives during Christmas.”
While at work that Monday, MaryLou received a text from Greg.
“He revealed to me that his friend’s spouse tested positive for COVID-19. He said ‘We’re all going to get tested,’ and I thought to myself, ‘Don’t tell me that frog in my kid’s throat is COVID,” MaryLou said.
She then told her boss, who sent her home and shut down the facility for three days. All her colleagues tested negative. Greg and Luke found out they had tested positive on Wednesday of that week; MaryLou and Jake, on Thursday. None of them truly thought they were sick until they received the positive results.
MaryLou harbored some disbelief; her family was healthy and had been following every protocol. This is a family of fighters, and they would be fine, she decided. She was emboldened when, during those first few days after testing positive, the symptoms were not overpowering.
“Initially I thought to myself, I can cruise through this, this is like your basic cold. Well guess what, I was wrong,” she said. “Within days, my lungs became so compromised. We took our (temperatures) every single day, none of us ever had anything above 98.6 (degrees), but I ended up getting chills, I had some body aches, I had a headache. The biggest struggle for me was my breathing: I felt as if there was a rock on my chest. And I felt as if someone had a rope around my lungs, and they kept tightening the rope.”
Her sons and spouse weren’t as sick. She lost her taste and smell; they didn’t. Jake had the mildest case. Luke felt a tightness in his chest, but as MaryLou said, he’s 14, and she’s 50, “so he’s more resilient than I am.” Greg had what sounded like a wet cough, whereas MaryLou had trouble producing a cough at all — “It was just pain. And tightness.”
By her own admission, she should have gone to the hospital to take advantage of supplemental breathing, as she was told after the ordeal by a nurse from her doctor’s office.
“My concern as a mother and a wife is, what happens if I leave my family? I almost felt like if I go, I’m not coming back,” she said. “I’m a lifelong Catholic. They say the voice in your head is sometimes the voice of God, and the voice told me, ‘Stay home. You’re going to make it.’ I did not know I needed supplemental oxygen, but by the grace of God I made it through.”
While MaryLou said she has some lingering issues, she and the rest of her family were cleared around Jan. 7-9.
“I’ve had the flu before, bronchitis before, I’ve had illnesses that have knocked me down, but then I get back up. This is not your, you stay in bed three days then get back up,” she said. “This is your, stay in bed nine days, start to get back up, and then you fall back on your keester. I’m not exercising as much as I used to, I’m trying to build my lungs back up, I’ve gotten back to walking my dog, who was starting to tear the house apart. I think going into this with good health helps the recovery, but it certainly did not make the virus any easier. It still divides and conquers.”
The Gannottis tried a litany of remedies while recovering with varying degrees of success. MaryLou took to Facebook to say she was short of breath and ask how to mitigate that. A friend of hers, who is an occupational therapist and has worked with COVID-19 patients, told her to get on her stomach. Another friend said to practice yoga breathing.
MaryLou continued her own research on YouTube, where she found a doctor featured on the BBC describing a breathing technique and also advising to spend time on your stomach.
“My friend said to spend at least two hours a day on your stomach. Do not sleep on your back do not lie on your back,” MaryLou said. “I made everyone in this house do ‘tummy time.’ At that point, I almost felt like all I could do was sleep. I was sleeping up to 12-15 hours a day. I had no energy, but I knew the only way to get through this was to sleep and shut out the outside world. I didn’t want anyone sharing grim statistics with me.”
Another friend of MaryLou’s, who is a nurse, told her she needed to start taking a certain amount of baby aspirin every day because people are more prone to blood clots with COVID-19. MaryLou eventually started a regimen, which she calls “the COVID cocktail,” of vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc and vitamin B12. A naturopath told her to start taking black cumin oil, as well.
“As this was happening I just wanted to survive. I knew I could live or die. I knew the statistics with this disease, I also knew I wanted to live,” she said. “I’m not saying people who died didn’t have a will to live, but I knew I wanted to come out of this.”
Patrick Cahill, a doctor at Backus Hospital, described just how devastating COVID-19 can be to a family all living under the same roof.
“Most of the time, by the time that first person knows they have it, they’ve already transmitted it to the rest of the household,” he said. “The highest period of transmission risk is the two days or so prior to the symptoms’ onset. By the time somebody’s symptomatic, many times people are either trying to talk themselves out of the reality that this is COVID. They’ll say this is a cold, they might wait a couple days, then they might get tested when things are getting worse, and by that point, everyone they live with has likely been exposed.”
Cahill confirmed that the healthier someone is when dealing with the virus, the likelier they’ll be to have a speedy recovery. He also said he understood MaryLou’s decision not to go to a hospital.
“It’s completely understandable and it’s nothing someone should ever fault themselves for, especially if they’re generally in an excellent state of health,” Cahill said. “The thing I try to tell people shortly after they’ve been diagnosed, something that would probably be of a lot of help, is to see if they can purchase a pulse oximeter or borrow one from a friend just to monitor their oxygen levels.”
He also advised people to get vaccinated as soon as possible and pay attention in case they fall into an eligibility group.
As people search out alternative methods to treat COVID-19, Cahill recommends they consult with their doctors. And he said self-proning, or laying on your stomach, is one of the strategies “we tell everybody in the hospital to do because that has been a very easy and non-invasive, nontoxic method of improving outcomes.”
The kindness of others
While the time spent inside and struggling with her health was grim for MaryLou, she said the people who reached out to her were “angels” and helped her significantly through the ordeal. The kindness of strangers even saved a birthday.
On top of the whole family catching the coronavirus during the holiday season, it also happened to cut in on Luke’s birthday on Jan. 2. And MaryLou’s 50th on Jan. 12.
“January is already a rotten month for birthdays, but you want to talk about the worst birthday month ever?” MaryLou said. “But we’re coming out of it. I went to church this past Sunday, and a friend said to me, ‘It’s good to see you,’ and I said to her, ‘It’s good to be seen.’”
On Luke’s birthday, the family had ordered groceries to be delivered from Walmart, including a cake. But the cake wasn’t there. Greg contacted the delivery person, but Walmart wouldn’t let her bring the cake back, so she picked one up for the family and put it outside their door.
“My husband gave her a big tip to cover the cost. A stranger we did not know took money out of her own pocket and delivered a birthday cake. It’s stuff like that,” MaryLou said through tears, “that chokes me up because they say that Jesus presents himself when people do things like that. We didn’t even know this woman, but she knew our order got screwed up, and she went and picked out a birthday cake for our kids because we couldn’t.”
Hope and family
MaryLou mentioned a striking piece of family history: her great-grandmother, Carmina DiBiasio, died of influenza in Italy in 1919, during another global pandemic.
“She was 32 years old when she died, leaving behind my grandfather Andrea, his brother Tommasso and sisters Concettina and Caterina,” she said. “My grandfather was just about to turn 11 when she died, and he was the oldest of her four children. He immigrated to the U.S. at 16, and much of that had to do with his evil stepmother.”
The Gannottis are the ultimate cautionary tale in MaryLou’s eyes. She said the coronavirus is insidious — it can take hold of any person at any time.
Still, MaryLou said she wants to give people hope.
“There’s hope in kindness, there’s hope in compassion, the wonderful things that people were praying for us, sending us messages, my brothers checking in with me, my sister, my mother, my aunt,” she said. “I had cousins praying for us. We appreciate the people who were praying for us. I don’t want to sound Evangelical, but it makes a difference.”