“I am God’s miracle,” Cora Villanueva, 65, said a year after she tested positive for COVID-19 and became one of the most critical cases in Bacolod City. She survived the disease after being in the hospital for five weeks. Three weeks of that, she was in the ICU, most of that time breathing through intubation.
I had not been in touch with Cora, my former sister-in-law, for decades until her son, my favorite nephew, called me to say his mother had the dreaded virus and had been intubated. The years of no communication was instantly bridged by a need. As the eldest of siblings, I still counted her as part of my family.
She needed prayers and I started a daily rosary walk for her (which until today I still practice while praying for many intentions). Later she would need medicines that had to go through protocols to get shipped in a cargo plane which would pass Bacolod. There were no regular flights in July 2020. But such is the beauty of goodness; strangers made it happen.
A year after she lingered between life and death, Cora has felt not entirely recovered. She said her energy has not returned a hundred percent. She still uses oxygen to battle the feeling of suffocation when she sleeps at night or naps in the afternoon.
But despite those physical weaknesses, she is constantly grateful to God for saving her life, to friends for their prayers, and to strangers for making things happen.
Cora, who has a master’s degree in mathematics and was teaching in the United States for 19 years, decided to come home on July 8, 2020. It was only a few months after the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic and border protocols were strict and sometimes confusing.
She tested positive for COVID from an RT-PCR test administered when she arrived in Bacolod City on July 15, 2020. She had taken the long route home, starting from San Francisco on July 8, landing in Cebu City on July 10, flying to Manila on July 12 because of Bacolod airport restrictions, and waiting in Manila for three days for a flight to Bacolod on July 15.
She had gone through the same test in Cebu City where her plane from San Francisco, California had landed on July 12. After 24 hours, the result was negative for COVID.
In Bacolod City, the positive result came on July 20, five days after she had the test at a local public high school where passengers were brought after arriving at the Silay Airport.
Until now she remembers that school as “dirty.” She wiped the classroom desk with her pack of wet tissues to rid it of dust. A few minutes later, a downpour stirred the dry ground and sent dust clouds to the quadrangle where they were seated. Cora, who has asthma, was anxious that would trigger a bad attack.
It did on July 19. She was brought from her hotel-quarantine facility to a hospital for nebulizer treatment. After the treatment she waited for an hour for an ambulance to take her back, so she decided to take a taxi back to her hotel.
The next day, she learned that she was positive for COVID. She asked to be brought to the Bacolod Adventist Medical Center. Cora said her condition got worse in the following days; she gasped for breath and had very high fever. Doctors decided to intubate. She does not remember anything of the three weeks she was in the ICU.
Meanwhile, her condition turned worst. Her son called me to help procure Remdisivir, then a new drug that was being given to severe COVID cases.
But it is not a drug that one can purchase in a drug store. And there were no regular flights to the islands, and Luzon was still under the strictest community quarantine lockdown.
The goodness of strangers took over from there. I found the number of a man from the company distributing Remdisivir. He was very helpful, explaining the procedures of a hospital-to-hospital purchase, of documents to be filed with the Food and Drug Association, of the cargo plane that would take it to Bacolod. The man named Ronald at the other end of the phone arranged for all the documentary requirements and finally gave me the Cebu Pacific tracking number of the package.
I wanted to make sure that the package would be in the first flight to Bacolod. I emailed a stranger in Cebu Pacific who was in my inbox. She directed me to another stranger, a woman named Shania of Cebu Pacific, who finally sent me the package’s tracking information showing it was already on a cargo plane to Iloilo that would fly to Bacolod.
Cora said her treatment involved two drugs – Remdisivir and Tocilizumab. “They said both had to be given to be effective,” she said.
She told me that another group of people came forward to help –her former students at the University of St. La Salle-Bacolod raised a substantial amount to help her with the hospital bill for the five-week treatment.
Cora had stayed in the hospital from July 20 to August 26, 2020. Her discharge was treated as big news, the hospital had taken a video of her being wheeled out, with the rows of medical staff applauding. The video appeared on local TV’s “Good Morning Show.”
“I was in ICU for three weeks which I presume was about the same time I was intubated. Probably the longest patient intubated. The staff celebrated because I was the first critical patient in Bacolod to survive. They had me on The Morning Show,” she said.
When I asked her days ago what that bad episode had taught her, she replied: “With God nothing is impossible. I cannot thank Him enough.”
Cora has five adult children and five grandchildren.