Losing Hope, a Coronavirus Patient is Saved by Family and Friends

George Chiropolos stood up from his bed on April 1, and started walking to the living room of his home in Wilmette, Illinois. But the room started spinning, and he collapsed on the couch. He felt like he was being strangled.

He had a decision to make: Call the doctor or suffer through this and hope it goes away.

He called the doctor. No help there. Chiropolos had tested positive for the coronavirus the day before, but the doctors wanted him to tough it out at home because the hospital was already busy enough. He couldn’t. He had just enough strength to call his doctor. He drove to Glenbrook Hospital with his brother Nick trailing behind him just in case. Chiropolos was admitted, one of the hundreds now in Glenbrook with the coronavirus. He had packed a small duffel bag, thinking he’d only be there a few days.

He was wrong.

On the first day, as he laid belly up, they pumped oxygen through tubes into his nostrils.

Feeling worse and worse, he was moved to the intensive care unit. They hooked him up to an IV and started trying more drugs, more doses. His lungs were weakening. The strangle was tightening. He became scared. The doctors wouldn’t let him get out of bed unless he had to go to the bathroom, and in those cases, he had to be propped up by a walker. On the third day, he needed more oxygen, so they pumped oxygen through a mask. When he tried to stand up from his bed to go to the bathroom, he got up too quickly, and he collapsed again. He became so scared, he refused to stand, even a few times, when he had to go to the bathroom.

All he could think of was drowning or falling off a cliff. He became disoriented. He thought about his mortality.

Chiropolos suffered a panic attack. As the group of doctors watched him regain his breath, they instructed him to take a long, deep breath through the nose and out through his mouth. He tried to stand up again, but he couldn’t do it. Hopeless, Chiropolos cried.

He lost hope for a while. He knew there was no magic pill coming. He planned to ride out the storm.

Over the next 10 days, Chiropolos’ health improved, but mentally, he was still struggling. He started to blame himself. Wondered why he didn’t take up more hobbies besides watching the Chicago White Sox play. Wondered why he dropped out of Southern Illinois University as a sophomore to become a janitor. Wondered if he would ever get the opportunity to change his life like he had been telling himself he would the past few decades.

To survive, he would transport his focus back to the past, to simpler times. When his dad, a groundskeeper at Wrigley Field, would take him to sporting events, like the 1959 World Series and the 1963 NFL Championship. When he would play pickup baseball at Senn High School with some buddies from the neighborhood until his pants were dusted with dirt splotches. Back in those days, Chiropolos was worriless.

On his 11th day in the hospital, Easter Sunday, his younger sister, Tina Malnati, called. On a normal Easter, Chiropolos would be singing a Greek prayer to 50 friends and family members at the Malnati house in Northfield. This Easter, George whispered a prayer over speakerphone as those at the Malnati house listened.

“Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs, He has granted life,” he sang three times.

The prayer to start his life over again gave him hope.

While her family picked apart lamb chops — not the usual rotisserie spit — Malnati collected her thoughts.

“Oh, God, could this be the last time? And thinking: Oh God, I hope not.”

While coronavirus patients are stuck in hospitals for health reasons — as not to infect other people — they struggle mentally. Their connection to the outside world is a revolving door of doctors and nurses. FaceTime and Zoom meetings do not yield the mental health benefits of face-to-face contact. The smallest gestures from family and friends, then, have become more crucial than ever.

Malnati called Chiropolos anywhere from 1 to 3 a.m. Malnati felt his anxiety skyrocketing. So she asked George to visualize a place he was comfortable in.

He closed his eyes and saw Foster Avenue Beach, the beach he and his dad visited almost every day when he was a high-schooler, worriless.

The vision made Chiropolos feel better. He thought about laughing, getting in the water, building sandcastles.

Malnati would then focus on what George could see, smell, hear, feel. The light breeze. The smell of the blossoming spring flowers. The grains of sand between his toes. It worked. After listening, he would doze to sleep.

Meanwhile, Malnati was also rushing to help her brother in a scientific manner. Leafing through The New York Times’ coverage of the coronavirus. Contacting doctor friends, acquaintances, mutual friends, trying to get a second, third, fourth opinion on potential drug trials.

While Tina provided emotional stability for George, Rick Malnati, Tina’s husband, took a different approach. Before the coronavirus, Rick, a Cubs fan, used to mock George for being a White Sox fan. But with live sports shut off, no longer could he needle his brother-in-law. Rick needed to be there for his brother-in-law emotionally.

“I was scared. I could feel his anxiety, too,” Rick said.

Rick, who played college basketball at Bradley University, reached out to Doug Collins, who played at Illinois State University before becoming the first pick in the NBA draft in 1973. Collins texted Chiropolos texts daily, telling him: “Kick this thing’s ass.”

“Doug Collins texted me every day until I got outta there,” Chiropolos said. “Can you believe that?”

In 2007, Rick, former head coach of New Trier varsity basketball, helped Chiropolos land an interview to be the team’s equipment manager.

When Chiropolos earned the job, he was given a 90-day period to prove his mettle. Not wanting to let Rick down, he did just that. Arriving early, staying late. Picking up clothes off the floor. Breaking up fights between students and reporting them to his supervisors. Chiropolos retired last year, in 2019.

Beth Lopiccolo, New Trier’s current equipment manager, witnessed Chiropolos’ work ethic first hand.

It was picture day for boys’ volleyball. Five players forgot to bring their warm-ups. Chiropolos quickly found New Trier swimming warm-ups. Rushing into Gates Gym, he handed the replacement warm-ups to the athletes.

“George made sure [the volleyball athletes] were a part of the picture and they weren’t gonna be left out,” Lopiccolo said.

Chiropolos could be spotted at any Trevian athletic event. He prided himself on memorizing the scores of the nights’ games.

Chiropolos worked towards a purpose: Try to get to know the kids.

Consider his purpose achieved.

“There’s not a time where George could not walk down the hall without everybody knowing him,” Lopiccolo said.

When Lopiccolo learned from a Kinetic Wellness teacher that Chiropolos was sick, she added Chiropolos to her list of people she prays for. Once Chiropolos found himself in the hospital, she texted him daily.

“Try to sit up, look out the window, it’s nice and sunny,” she texted. “Hey, George, the sun is shining, go look for it.”

But even as his health slowly improved, Chiropolos only felt lonelier and lonelier.

Tina asked him one night if there was a song he wanted to hear. There was: “Hotel California” by The Eagles. Tina played the song from YouTube and heard George start to sing along.

“Oh my god, this is amazing,” Tina thought, and then she asked where George was picturing himself.

He was in Southern California, 19 years old, road-tripping with some of his college buddies, worriless.

She compiled “George’s playlist,” which became the soundtrack for their FaceTime sessions.

“Hotel California” was his freedom song, a song he used to listen to when he was growing up turned into a signal for him to get his act together.

He did not think about the lyric “you can check out any time you want/but you can never leave.” He concentrated on getting better.

And on April 18, after 16 days in the hospital, Chiropolos, 68, had recovered enough to go home.

Covid-19 “put a hell of a fear into me,” he said.

Since getting out of the hospital, he has woken up at 9 am and sets goals for himself. He calls Tina, telling her what’s on his daily agenda. By the end of every night, Tina makes sure her brother executed his goal, such as walking a mile.

He stays in contact with the family, friends, and acquaintances who reached out to him on more of a regular basis than ever.

“You hear the word ‘miracle.’ What does that mean: miracle? I’ll never forget that the people were trying to get behind me.”

Butler women’s basketball beat reporter for the Butler Collegian, Butler men’s basketball beat reporter for the IndyStar. Twitter: @drewfav

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