Italian Fitness Coach With COVID-19: 'Feels Like Your Head Is Being Held Underwater'

Mar 26, 2020
Originally published on March 27, 2020 8:33 pm

Italy has one of the world's oldest populations and its high COVID-19 death toll is mostly among the elderly with preexisting illnesses. But younger, healthy Italians have also become very sick after catching the new coronavirus.

Fausto Russo is a 38-year-old fitness trainer. He has been hospitalized with COVID-19 in Latina, south of Rome, for over two weeks. On Wednesday, he spoke to NPR and other international news media by video.

"I run a fitness center, I train soccer teams, I'm a physical therapist," Russo says."I never smoked, my last fever was 10 years ago. Suddenly I'm catapulted onto a hospital bed, unable to breathe."

In his first week at the Santa Maria Goretti Hospital, medical staff gave him and an IV drip and a type of helmet to help him breathe. He was bed-ridden, unable to move, eat or drink.

"It is hard to imagine, time never passes," Russo says. "Your body can't find the right position to sleep. It's so intense, I'll never forget it."

On his sixth day at the hospital, he was given an oxygen mask. He says his condition improved 60-70% three days later. On day 17, he was able to go off the oxygen.

As he speaks to journalists, he is hoarse and says he feels tightening in his chest. "This virus attacks the lungs," he says. "This aggressive pneumonia is devastating. ... If I were older or sicker, I'd be dead. It feels like your head is being held underwater."

Researchers have pointed to Italy's large aging population — 23% are 65 or older — as a possible factor in the country's high death rate from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Italy's government said Thursday 8,165 people in the country have died from COVID-19, the highest known tally in the world, and it has identified 80,539 confirmed cases of infection.

Russo says he does not know how he became infected. "The disease is insidious," he says. "It walks with the legs of those who are asymptomatic."

He says he is grateful to the medical staff, but they would not spend long by his side, avoiding infection.

"You're alone with yourself, family's not there to comfort you. It's hours of waiting and waiting," he says.

"It changed me. I understand the importance of things that used to seem insignificant," he says, "things that signify living — breathing, a walk, a hug, a glass of wine — because this virus wants to take that away from you. It wants to take away your freedom."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Italy has one of the world's oldest populations, and elderly people with preexisting health issues make up a high percentage of the coronavirus death toll. But young, healthy Italians are also dying. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli brings us the story of one man who says he nearly did not make it.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Fausto Russo has been hospitalized for 17 days in Latina, south of Rome. He's 38 years old and tells his story through Facebook Live to the foreign media association.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAUSTO RUSSO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "I run a fitness center. I train soccer teams. I'm a physical therapist," says Russo. "I never smoked, last fever was 10 years ago. Suddenly I'm catapulted onto a hospital bed, unable to breathe."

He was put in a pressurized helmet and on an IV drip. Bedridden for six days, he was unable to move, eat or drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "It's hard to imagine. Time never passes," says Russo. "Your body can't find the right position to sleep. It's so intense. I'll never forget it."

On Day 6, an oxygen mask replaced the helmet, and Russo agreed to try an experimental drug. It's not clear whether it was effective. But three days later, he says his condition improved 60% to 70%. On Day 17, the first he hasn't used an oxygen mask, his voice is hoarse. There's a tightening of his lungs. And he's doing breathing exercises waiting for the latest test results. Russo hopes to go home soon and reunite with his wife and two kids who just got out of quarantine. He doesn't know how he got infected. "This disease is insidious," he says. "It walks with the legs of those who are asymptomatic."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "This virus attacks the lungs," explains Russo. "This aggressive pneumonia is devastating. If I were older or sicker, I'd be dead. It feels like your head is being held underwater."

Russo is very grateful to the medical staff, but fearing infection, doctors didn't stay long by his side, leaving him in intense solitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "You're alone with yourself. Families are not there to comfort you. It's hours of waiting and waiting. It changed me. I understand the importance of things that used to seem insignificant."

Such as, we ask?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Things that signify living - breathing, a walk, a hug, a glass of wine - because this virus wants to take that away from you. It wants to take away your freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.