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Perth Amboy Firefighter Battles Test of COVID-19

October 07, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:

Firefighter Brian Bonilla is used to the heat. A captain at the Perth Amboy Fire Department in New Jersey, he faces life-threatening situations on a regular basis. From burning homes and flaming car wrecks to collapsed buildings and noxious gas leaks, he’s seen—and survived—a lot of things. Of all his close calls, however, the closest came not from a fire, but rather from a fever.

“I’m very in tune with my body, and I hardly ever get sick,” says Brian, 46, who began having flu-like symptoms in mid-December 2020, the last weekend before Christmas. “I’ve only had the flu three or four times in my life, and it always starts the same way: with a weird pain in my back. Because I started feeling a little sore in my back, I decided to get a flu test.”

He tested negative not only for the flu, but also for COVID-19.

“I was breathing just fine, but I had them check for COVID, too, just in case. When my tests came back negative, the doctor told me to take vitamin C and Theraflu, which I did,” Brian continues. “But I just started to feel worse and worse. I was still breathing fine, but I felt really beat-up, like my flesh was coming off my bones. That’s how sore I was on the back of my arms and the back of my legs. I was sweating so much, and I had a pounding headache.”

His headache became so bad that it actually hurt to hear the sound of his two children being joyful on Christmas morning.

In the following days, Brian was tested twice more for flu and coronavirus. Both flu tests and one COVID test were negative. He was awaiting the results of his third COVID test on Christmas Day when he sat down to eat a meal.

“I started eating, and I couldn’t taste my food,” says Brian, who immediately became concerned and asked his wife to bring him a jar of a vaporizing rub ointment. “I couldn’t smell it, and that’s when I realized I had COVID-19.”

In the Nick of Time

Brian quarantined himself in his bedroom for the remainder of the holiday and received confirmation the next day that he did, in fact, have COVID-19. He was planning to ride out his illness at home until a paramedic friend heard his breathless voice on the phone and convinced him to go to the hospital.

When he arrived in the emergency room at Raritan Bay Medical Center, doctors X-rayed his chest and checked his blood oxygen level. The latter was 79%—normal is 95% to 100%—and the former showed pneumonia in both lungs.

“I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten because it was so gradual, but I was in pretty bad shape,” says Brian, who was admitted immediately to the hospital’s Special Care Unit, where he lost 30 pounds as a result of his illness. “They told me that if I had waited another day to go in, things might have looked pretty grim.”

Says internist Matthew Yotsuya, M.D., who oversaw Brian’s care: “He was extremely short of breath when he came in and couldn’t walk or do much of anything at all. His lab work was extremely abnormal, which told us he had a chance of becoming really sick.”

Dr. Yotsuya treated Brian with steroids and respiratory support, including a non-rebreather mask and, later, a nasal cannula. The first is a mask that delivers oxygen to the patient without allowing them to “rebreathe” their exhaled air. The second is a plastic tube that delivers supplemental oxygen to the patient through their nostrils as they breathe. Fortunately, he didn’t need a ventilator.

“His treatment was very typical for someone who has COVID-19,” continues Dr. Yotsuya, whose team has been on the front lines of the pandemic since its earliest days. “Perth Amboy was one of the first places in the Northeast that was hit with COVID-19, and I think our team has done a really admirable job of taking care of patients and working toward their best outcomes.”

Brian’s Best Outcome

Physically, Brian still is not 100 percent recovered, but he is COVID-free, can breathe without oxygen and has started to gain back some of the weight that he lost. Mentally, he feels stronger than ever.

“I did a lot of soul searching,” says Brian spent, who spent 10 days isolated alone in the hospital, lying flat on his stomach for 20 hours every day to better oxygenate his body. During that time, he video-chatted with his family and played on his phone, but kept the television off. Instead of TV, he spent most of his time engaged in self-reflection. “Being so sick was kind of eye-opening for me. I had an epiphany, lying there by myself.”

What he realized most in those vulnerable moments was the power of gratitude and positivity. “I let go of a lot of negative feelings that had been bothering me and began focusing on the positive,” Brian continues. “That’s what got me through the isolation and the illness.”

That and the staff at Raritan Bay, whom he thanked with a lunch delivery after he was discharged. “The staff was so awesome, especially the nurse manager of the Special Care Unit,” he says. “She checked on me and was in contact with my wife every day she was there. That was a great feeling to have someone that I feel went the ‘extra mile’ for me as a patient.”

Brian’s enthusiasm for firefighting remains—not in spite of COVID-19, but rather because of it. “The public depends on us to take care of them,” he says. “There’s always a chance that something might happen, but that’s what we signed up for. It’s the nature of the job.”

Next Steps & Resources:

Meet our source: Matthew Yotsuya, M.D. To make an appointment Dr. Yotsuya or another doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.

Learn about the COVID Recovery Center, New Jersey’s first center dedicated to assist COVID-19 patients after their recovery

What can you do after you’re fully vaccinated?

A quick breakdown of the 3 different COVID vaccines

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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