Fairfielder survives coronavirus; his father wasn’t as lucky
FAIRFIELD — Everybody is talking about the coronavirus, but few have had the remarkable direct experiences stemming from it that this Fairfield native has.
Jim Ercolani not only went through 12 intense days of being homebound in Fairfield with COVID-19 himself, but also lost his father, James Ercolani, to the virus in the same week.
“I never had anything like this ever in my life,” Jim Ercolani, a fourth generation Fairfield resident., said of the illness.
“I’ve had flus before but this was ongoing,” he said. “It went on for 12 days. I had no energy. I couldn’t get out of bed.”
For the past year or so Ercolani, a Manhattan-based real estate agent, had been living back at home with his father, following the death of his mother in 2018.
“My father was 85 with diabetes,” he said of the 1956 Fairfield University graduate, who remained a devoted Stags supporter throughout his life, “so he had underlying conditions.”
He described his father as a popular and gregarious man, a retired banker who still maintained a good support network, as well as close ties with his family and St. Thomas Church, where he was a longtime active member.
On Monday, March 16, Jim Ercolani was in Manhattan showing apartments when he first realized he felt ill.
“I felt achy on the Metro-North going home,” he said, “and then I had a low-grade fever that went high-grade throughout that night.”
That next morning, he knew he was pretty ill, suffering from a fever that was topping out just under 104.
He admitted that he had not been informed about precautions going into the illness, and didn’t even immediately realize what was wrong.
“I didn’t really fully understand the Corona,” he said. “I’d been playing stupid and not really paying attention to the news.”
After he had just started to learn more details about the current situation that week, he finally took a trip to the grocer to get some supplies. It made a stark impression on him.
“I went to Whole Foods in Fairfield and people were fighting over food,” he said. “Two women were going at it.”
“One woman took every one of the frozen meals,” he said, with the other, also apparently a young mother, raising objections.
“I never saw people fight over frozen meals,” he said, watching one hit the other on the arm, and a very brief but shocking scuffle exploding and then quickly dissipating.
That next day after returning on the train, Ercolani’s father informed him that it looked like he too was getting sick.
“He said, ‘I think I have what you have,’” he remembered.
The following day, Wednesday, Ercolani went into New York, where he got a COVID-19 test at Lenox Hill Hospital.
“They were very efficient,” he said, bringing him to an isolated room, where he was kept comfortable for about two hours before testing was completed.
“They called me Sunday and said ‘You tested positive,’” he said, though by that point he and his father knew what it was they had.
The fever — and its accompanying issues — was the main problem. Ercolani said the two struggled to simply maintain rest and continue a regiment of Tylenol.
He said the fever would get worse at night, topping 103, but would wane with activity during the day, dropping to around 100.
“In the daytime if I were to do something it would go down,” he said, “and then it would flare up at night.”
“I would force myself to go to bed,” he said. “I would take a lukewarm shower and I would take a Tylenol.”
Still, he and his father had no appetite for food, and he remembered a feeling of wanting to vomit when he tried to eat something.
As struggles continued with fever for both of them, Ercolani said he reached out to their local hospital but was discouraged from admission.
“The hospital was kind of dismissive,” he said, being told it was really the last place he wanted to be at that time given its crowding and chaos.
Instead they continued, on the advice of Lenox Hill Hospital, where he said the staff was helpful and informative, to home treat.
“There’s no medication for you,” they said. “All you can do is drink plenty of fluids and take Tylenol and it’ll go away.”
“It was creepy,” he said. “It was scary. And if you’ve ever had a fever before, a high-grade fever, it just feels so awful.”
“I had no cough,” he said. “I had no sore throat. I just had a fever that was relentless.”
Ercolani said he would sometimes fall down but be too weak to even get himself upright again without a long wait.
Likewise, his father, whose diabetes constituted a terrible pre-existing condition for COVID-19, struggled with fever and the accompanying weakness and loss of appetite.
“Thankfully some of my siblings came and they got me Gatorade and stuff like that,” he said. “Me and my dad were both doing that.”
“There’s really not a lot you can do unless you can’t breathe,” he said the staff at Lenox Hill told him.
Though he had no particular respiratory symptoms from the virus, James Ercolani’s years of medication for his diabetes, as well as his advanced age in general, began to take their toll.
Due to his own symptoms, his son had gotten to the point where he was struggling to help care for him in the throes of the virus.
The hospital was a last resort, Ercolani said, but by the end of the week the senior Ercolani said he couldn’t take the trauma anymore.
“His fever was relentless and he had no energy,” he said. “And he couldn’t stand up.”
“Take me to the hospital,” he told his family. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“He went in on a Sunday evening at 10:30,” Ercolani said, March 22. Fairfield paramedics arrived in full haz-mat gear and brought him to St. Vincent’s Medical Center.
“Tuesday at 5 p.m. he went into a coma,” he said. “They were like, ‘There was nothing we could do.’”
He died officially of heart failure on Saturday, March 28.
For Jim Ercolani, meanwhile, an ongoing regiment of lukewarm showers and Tylenol ultimately began taming the fever.
“I couldn’t see him because the hospital was shut down and I was sick,” he said, noting they gave him the chance to say goodbye by phone.
Ercolani finally began seeing recovery himself over the next couple of days. The fever lifted, and though he had lost 22 pounds from the experience, the end was finally in sight.
“Once you have it, you’re immune, because you build up antibodies for this,” he said, or so medical science believes at this time. “Presumably you can’t get it again.”
Still, Ercolani, who is still slowly getting back his energy, uses precautions in public.
“So I wear a mask,” he said. “I avoid contact as best I can.”
Like others, Ercolani hopes the epidemic passes soon.
He’s feeling better and grateful to have survived this trying experience, he said, but now that he has his health back, “There’s nowhere to go!”