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On mend again from COVID-19, O’Fallon, Mo., man warns: ‘Just don’t be dumb’

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LAKE SAINT LOUIS — Tony Calcaterra thought he didn’t need to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

He’s just 22. He was infected last year after a trip to Florida with his girlfriend and suffered mild symptoms. His siblings were infected. His grandmother, who was homebound and awaiting a liver transplant, caught it and died.

Calcaterra considers himself to be healthy and athletic, a lifelong baseball player who also played sand volleyball twice a week at Sugarfire Smoke House in Wentzville.

"I physically can't take a deep breath. No matter how hard you try your chest barely expands. You're trying to breathe. It’s like someone's foot is on your chest. You can’t get any air in,” said Tony Calcaterra, 22, who uses oxygen to breathe, as he fights the COVID delta variant on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in Lake Saint Louis, Mo. A healthy young man, Calcaterra has been hospitalized since August 3, 2021. He wants to get vaccinated as soon as he can and urges others to do the same. Video by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

“I just never really thought I needed it,” he told the Post-Dispatch on Monday. “If I get it again,” he thought, “it’ll be the same.”

But Calcaterra, of O’Fallon, Missouri, was not immune. On July 26, he developed a fever and a cough after he was among a group of 10 who went, unmasked, to a bar and a casino for a friend’s 21st birthday party.

Eight days later, after a continuing high fever and a cough so bad his chest hurt, he was admitted to SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital-Lake Saint Louis. He’s still there, two weeks later, and has no idea when he will be able to leave.

He receives a steady stream of high-flow oxygen through a tube to his nose, with a monitor on his finger, six electrodes on his back and a port for an IV in his upper left arm. His arm shows deep bruises from being repeatedly stuck with needles.

On standby is an oxygen mask that he has to put over the nasal tube to build up the strength he needs to move the 2 feet from the recliner to his bed.

“When I move, I use a lot of energy and a lot of oxygen,” Calcaterra said. He also used the mask at the end of an hourlong interview.

“I physically can’t take a deep breath. No matter how hard you try, your chest barely moves,” he said. “It’s like someone’s foot is on your chest.”

But he seems to be getting better.

“He’s really come a long way,” said Dr. Muhammad Malik, one of the team taking care of Calcaterra.

Calcaterra said this is the hardest thing he’s ever gone through, adding, “I don’t even know if I’m halfway done.”

“It’s a marathon,” said his father, Bobby Calcaterra.

‘I’ll be immune’

Tony Calcaterra is among a large group in the recent wave of COVID infections: They have the more contagious delta strain and a lower rate of vaccination.

Anecdotally, doctors and health officials think the variant may be more severe because of the severity of the disease in some young patients.

Malik said Calcaterra is an example of “the youngest (patients), who believe, ‘I’ll just have the infection and I’ll be immune.’ This is a good example for them,” he said. “The delta is totally different.”

Calcaterra likely was infected with the delta variant, but Malik said there is no way to know for sure, because samples must be sent to a special lab while patients are infectious.

At Malik’s urging, the Calcaterra family agreed to talk to a reporter about their experience, to help others understand the importance of vaccination. An SSM spokeswoman contacted the Post-Dispatch on Aug. 6.

A few hours later that day, Calcaterra had become sicker. Lying on his stomach to help his breathing, he was unable to speak more than a few words, spokeswoman Carly Smith said later. His girlfriend had to feed him.

On Monday, Tony Calcaterra was well enough for an interview. Sitting next to the hospital bed in a recliner where his mother has been sleeping, Calcaterra described the ordeal of developing a severe case of COVID after having already been infected.

He called in sick on July 27 at the insurance office where he works. On July 31, his parents took him to an urgent care and found he was positive again for COVID. He was prescribed a steroid, prednisone, as well as antibiotics and an albuterol inhaler to help him breathe.

Three days later at 3 a.m., his mother decided they had to go to a hospital. He was shaking, still had a high fever and a “horrible” cough.

And while he wasn’t struggling to breathe, the amount of oxygen in his blood had dropped to 87%. A normal person has a pulse oximeter reading in the high 90s.

He quickly ended up on high-flow oxygen. He didn’t want it but said he was told, “You’re going to die.”

Malik said Calcaterra was a step away from needing a CPAP machine to help him breathe.

“We prayed a lot,” said his mother, Shannon Calcaterra.

Even on high-flow oxygen, Calcaterra’s pulse oximeter level was between 93 and 95 Monday.

Due to the pressure created by coughing jags, he’s had alveoli, the tiny air sacs in his lungs, pop, Malik said.

He’s lost 40 pounds in the hospital and is only just getting his appetite back.

‘Terminally exhausted’

Calcaterra calls his hospitalization a “long-term mental game.” At first, he wasn’t able to sleep. When he’d finally pass out, his oxygen levels would drop. Staff would come in to check on him, and he would wake, not knowing where he was, with other people’s hands on him.

He calls it being “terminally exhausted.”

The long stay and limited personal contact has led to anxiety, panic attacks and depression.

He looks forward to leaving. “The first night home. The first night’s sleep. That’s all I really want.”

Shannon Calcaterra, an employee of SSM Health Orthopedics, had tried unsuccessfully to persuade her son to get vaccinated.

She was herself, but she also was infected in the family’s recent bout with the virus. She compared her experience to allergy symptoms. His father, who has not been vaccinated, also was infected, and still has not regained his sense of taste and smell.

Calcaterra, his father and his girlfriend, who also was infected again but suffered milder symptoms, are all planning to get vaccinated when Calcaterra is off steroids and his symptoms have largely cleared.

Even then, he plans on wearing a mask and advising others: “Just don’t be dumb. Still be cautious. Wear the mask.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “You are playing a dangerous game by not caring.

“Hell, there’s still people who think COVID’s fake,” Calcaterra said, a rare time when his voice rose despite the strain of breathing. “That’s insane to me.”

Annika Merrilees of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Robert Patrick • 314-340-8131

@rxpatrick on Twitter

RPatrick@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.