Former Florida mayor survives COVID after near-death experiences
When former Delray Beach Mayor Jeff Perlman was wheeled out of his room at Bethesda Hospital East this week, dozens of nurses and doctors lined the hallway and cheered.
Behind a mask and sitting in a wheelchair, the stocky 55-year-old businessman cried.
“I love you all. You’re heroes. You’re heroes,” he said, his voice cracking. “I’m going to tell the world you saved me.”
Perlman, who spent 39 days in the Boynton Beach hospital recovering from COVID-19, wasn’t exaggerating.
Twice during his stay, he said he was convinced he was going to die.
“I couldn’t breathe,” said Perlman, a former newspaper reporter turned publisher and business investor. “I can’t even describe it. It’s the most horrifying feeling.”
He said he remembers being alone, in a windowless room, gasping for air.
“This is how it’s going to end for me?” he said he asked himself. “I’m not even going to get to say goodbye?”
But, he said, with the help of two treatments of convalescent plasma, doses of remdesivir, the steadfast care of doctors and nurses and just plain luck, he finally left the hospital on Tuesday.
“I never thought I’d go home,” he said of the dark days he spent clinging to life. “It gets emotional. This is tough.”
His survival is miraculous in many ways.
When he came home from work on July 10, he said he felt tired so he took a nap. When he woke up he had a fever. He figured he’d just pop a couple of Tylenol and head back to bed, but his wife persuaded him to call his doctor.
Since it was a Friday night and her office would be closed for the weekend, his internist, Dr. Paige Morris, told him to meet her at Bethesda to be tested for the coronavirus.
“That decision literally saved my life,” Perlman said. “If I had just taken a Tylenol and said I’ll deal with this on Monday I don’t think I would have made it.”
Hours after the test came back positive, he could barely walk. He was struggling to breathe. In addition to COVID-19, he had pneumonia in both lungs.
Credits convalescent plasma
While he has had asthma for years, he said it was mild and rarely bothered him.
“I felt like I had gotten hit by a truck,” he said. “I never had that feeling before, of suffocating.”
Within days, he was in the intensive care unit as doctors struggled to figure out ways to help him combat the disease.
But his condition continued to worsen. While the use of convalescent plasma is experimental, his doctors said it could save his life.
Perlman’s wife, Diane Colonna went on Facebook, searching for a donor. The donor had to have recovered from COVID-19, so the plasma would contain the antibodies Perlman needed to fight the infection. And the person had to have A-positive blood to be a match.
The first treatment offered hope.
“Your prayers and well wishes are working!” Colonna, the retired director of the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, wrote in a Facebook update.
“Jeff Perlman had a good night last night, he's breathing better with a bi-pap mask and his blood-oxygen level is in the normal range,” she wrote. “This is going to be an up and down battle but I'm all for celebrating the good days!”
It wasn’t until the second plasma treatment that Perlman said he began thinking he might survive.
While Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist this week raised questions about the value of using plasma to treat COVID-19 patients, Perlman said in his case it worked.
“I really think that blood plasma saved my life,” he said. “As soon as I’m eligible, in a month or so, I’m going to donate. I’m going to pay it forward.”
Further, he said, he benefited from the knowledge doctors have gained since the pandemic began ravaging the country. At the beginning the mortality rate was 85%, he said. It has now dropped to 15%.
‘It took everything from me but my life’
The road ahead for Perlman won’t be easy.
With his strength sapped and his lungs scarred, he has to relearn basic tasks, such as how to walk and how to breathe. He is tethered to oxygen and has to use a walker.
Instead of working as an executive vice president of CDS International Holdings or overseeing the production of newspapers he publishes in Delray and Boca Raton, he does breathing exercises. He works with physical therapists.
“It took everything from me but my life,” he said.
Since regaining his strength, Perlman has used Facebook to recount his death-defying journey in hopes of convincing skeptics to take the disease seriously, that COVID-19 isn’t the flu.
Perlman, a Democrat, says he tries to keep politics out of his posts.
His messages are simple: Wear a mask. Don’t go to large gatherings. Stay safe.
He said he will never know how he contracted the virus. During the months before his diagnosis, he said he was careful. He wore a mask and practiced social distancing. He did eat indoors at a restaurant several times, a decision, he now regrets.
‘I can live a normal life’
While there were many horrific days and nights as he struggled to breathe, he said one of the worst parts was the isolation. He couldn’t see his wife, his 82-year-old father, his four children or his friends.
When doctors and nurses treated him, they wore layers of protective clothing and masks.
“You can’t see faces. You can’t see your family. You can’t see anyone,” he said. “It’s very emotionally difficult.”
He said he recognizes that others are suffering after being cut off from the normal joys of life. Parties, concerts, movie theaters, ball games are now off-limits. Many have lost their jobs.
But, he said, having experienced the viciousness of the disease, he knows the advice of health experts should be taken seriously.
“To me, the call to arms is that the more sacrifices we make now, the sooner we can get back to our lives,” he said.
As for his own future, Morris has told him his prognosis is good. “I should get back to who I was,” he said. “I may have worse asthma and my lungs are scarred but I can live a normal life.”
The only dark spot is that health researchers are uncertain whether he will have a lifelong immunity from the disease. It’s one of the many unsolved mysteries of the novel coronavirus.
“I get to go through this hell and I could get it again because the antibodies may only be good for a couple of months,” he said.
But, he said, he is convinced hope is on the horizon. “The vaccine,” he said, “can’t come soon enough.”
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.