COVID-19 was barely in its infancy in New York City when Sean McDonald started coughing. Seasonal allergies, he figured. He was a healthy 44-year-old looking forward to a week’s vacation as he left his jobsite across from Grand Central Station on Friday, March 13.
A healthy Sean McDonald with his family and the pipe drum he plays in the Local 3 Sword of Light Bagpipe Band
Sean McDonald at a 2018 parade with his son and father, retired Local 3 member John “Jack” McDonald, who also plays drums in the Sword of Lights pipe band.
By Sunday, he’d quarantined himself in an upstairs room in his Nassau County home, apart from his wife, a pediatric nurse, and their four children. Five days later he was in the hospital. He was there 11 days, praying his family wasn’t infected, praying he wouldn’t need a ventilator.
“That was going through my head most of the time,” said McDonald, a journeyman wireman and drummer in Local 3’s Sword of Light Bagpipe Band.
He knew if his oxygen levels didn’t improve, the lightweight nasal cannula sending air through his nostrils wouldn’t be enough. He’d wind up with a tube down his windpipe, a machine breathing for him. He’d be sedated, unable to talk or eat. His odds of recovery would drop dramatically.
“What do I have to do to prevent that?” McDonald asked his medical team — nurses who were covered head to toe in protective gear; doctors who mainly checked on him by phone. They gave him a plastic device for breathing exercises.
“You blow in, your blow out, you suck in as hard as you can. It’s a little plastic device. I would do it all the time.”
The day he began to feel ill, New York City had logged just 137 cases of COVID-19. One week later, there were 5,683.
In between, McDonald had gone from a nuisance cough to a brutal one, he had headaches, fever and eye pain, he lost his sense of taste. Minor exertion left him huffing and puffing.
“Once or twice that week I was quarantining, my wife got called in to work at the hospital. I’d put a T-shirt over my face — we didn’t have masks yet — and go downstairs and check on the kids. Just going up and down a flight of stairs, I’d be out of breath.”
The afternoon of Friday, March 20, McDonald pulled into a drive-in testing site where a doctor pushed long swabs far up his nose and checked his oxygen with a finger monitor. Alarmed, he sent him inside for a chest X-ray that showed infiltrates in his lungs. “You need to go to the hospital,” the radiologist told him.
For hours he sat with a half-dozen others in an enclosed waiting room for likely COVID-19 patients. More filled the ER halls, where McDonald went in search of a nurse around 1 a.m.
“Where am I supposed to pass out?” he asked her, with as much good humor as he could muster.
After two days in a private room, he was moved to the COVID-19 ward when his test results came back positive. A roommate around his age was in worse shape, but McDonald believes he survived.
The virus also struck his sister and father, retired Local 3 member Jack McDonald, as well as his wife’s parents and possibly his mother. All are OK now. He, his sister and father have even donated blood plasma to help other patients recover.
He has no idea how he contracted the virus or who gave it to whom. “Taking the train, riding the subway, going to the deli, eating lunch outside with the guys. I could have gotten it anywhere,” he said.
Alone in the hospital, his phone was his lifeline, with Local 3 brothers among his most steadfast virtual visitors. The day after his release, a fellow band member played bagpipes in the street as friends and neighbors paraded by to welcome him home.
By early May, he’d was working again, a night shift on a fast-tracked project adding a floor to a local hospital. On June 1, he went back to his Midtown jobsite.
He’s vigilant about his health, knowing that the insidious virus causes potential long-term harm to organs, and that being cured isn’t a guarantee — as doctors thought initially — that he won’t get it again. He is following up with heart and lung specialists, and a urologist about kidney pain that may be tied to one of the medications he took.
“I’m extremely grateful to have made it through. I’m even more grateful for all the people who took care of my wife and kids. They couldn’t go in the house, but they called and dropped off food,” McDonald said. “I consider myself very lucky.”