James Hamblin met Bootsie Plunkett in March while filming a segment for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where he answered her questions about COVID-19. A few weeks later, she was diagnosed with the virus—and soon, she was in the ICU.
On this episode of Social Distance, Plunkett joins Hamblin and Katherine Wells to talk about experiencing the terror of a hospital during a pandemic, and how much a person’s perspective can change in a month.
Listen to the episode here:
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Katherine Wells: Before you and Jim went on Colbert, did you think it was just going to be a fun segment? Or were people around you already seriously concerned about the virus?
Bootsie Plunkett: We knew about coronavirus. We heard about it on the news, but it hadn't really started up here yet, so we weren't that concerned. Although [my son] Jake got really scared when he heard it could be bad for people with preexisting conditions.
James Hamblin: When did you start to think something might not be right?
Plunkett: I started getting these really bad pains in my head. And that's the one thing I don't suffer from, headaches.
Hamblin: You say one thing because you have had diabetes and lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. You're no stranger to symptoms of various illnesses, so you’re very in touch with what is normal for you and what is not.
Plunkett: Right. I never, ever get headaches. Never. And the headache was constant for about 10 days. Then I got fevers, and that lasted for two weeks. My husband slept next to me with a thermometer and all night long, he’d be like, “Take your temperature.” I’m like, “Come on, stop this crap.” He’d be like, “No, you gotta take your temperature. I’m worried about you.” Sure enough, he would take it and it would be like 103 degrees, and then I would take Tylenol and it would go away. That went on for two weeks. So I called my doctor up and she did one of those things on the computer, telemedicine or whatever it’s called, and she sent me a Z-Pak.
Hamblin: Your doctor assumed it was just a typical infection and didn’t tell you to do anything differently than how you would normally handle a cold?
Plunkett: She said I shouldn’t go to a hospital, because it’s dangerous with all of the germs, so I stayed home. Then they did another telemedicine thing over the computer and I told them I didn’t feel any better, so they had me come in for a coronavirus test. The doctors came out in their hazmat suits. It was pretty funny, looked like something out of a movie. Then they stuck these things up my nose. I felt like they were going to stick my eyeball out. It really hurt. The test went all the way behind my eye, or at least it felt like that. The next day, they called me to say it was positive.
Wells: Were you surprised? Did you think you might have it?
Plunkett: No, I really didn’t think I had it.
Hamblin: Why did you not think that you had it? Jake seemed to think you had it.
Plunkett: Jake did, but I said, “How can I have it? I haven’t left the house.” I was doing everything by the book, washing my hands, walking around with a mask on. So I figured what are the chances of me having it? Now I’m scared. I’m like, “Oh my God, I got the coronavirus.” I said to the doctor, “What do I do now?” They said, “Just stay home and do what you’re doing unless it takes a turn for the worse and you can’t breathe.”
I talked to the doctor at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon that day. At 10 o'clock, I was in the hospital. That’s how quickly it turned. My husband and daughter said they watched me throw my body on the kitchen table and I was gasping. I just couldn’t breathe. My husband’s like, “You got to go to hospital. I’m like, “No, I’m not going to the hospital. They told me to stay at home.”
Hamblin: You didn’t want to go because your doctor told you not to?
Plunkett: No, I didn’t want to go because I was afraid.
Wells: What were you afraid of?
Plunkett: Being put on a respirator. By the time I got to the hospital, I was completely out of it. I was making no sense. I really didn’t know where I was. It’s like I was on another planet. My blood oxygen was 79.
Wells: What does that mean, Jim?
Hamblin: It's a measure of how much of your red blood cells are filled with oxygen. Normally, most people are 99 or 100. When you get down to the low 90s, that’s acutely concerning. When you’re down at 79, you’re thinking that this person is in respiratory failure.
Plunkett: They told me that I was going to go on a respirator if they couldn’t get my numbers up. They were very honest about it.
Hamblin: What was it like in an ICU in New Jersey in the middle of this, during the hardest-hit moments of this pandemic?
Plunkett: It was just terrible. It was so scary. Any time I’ve ever been in the hospital, whether to have my children or have an operation, my husband’s always been there with me. Always. That was the first time he just had to hand me over, and that was it. That was hard.
And the girl next to me in my ICU room, she was intubated and she was about 30 years old. I would see them come in and they’d say “All right, we have to suction her out,” and she would start crying, because it’s extremely uncomfortable. The whole thing, her being on the respirator, really made me upset. I would cry in the bed next to her because I just couldn’t believe such a young, beautiful girl was on this machine. It just broke my heart.
Hamblin: Well, that was the thing you were afraid of. You didn’t want to come to the hospital because you didn’t want that to happen to you. How were you feeling when you were inches away from that actually happening?
Plunkett: Petrified. Every time they came into my room, I was waiting for them to say, “This is it, you have to go on it.” As soon as they walked in, I’d be like, “How’s my oxygen?” They must have been like, what is this woman with her oxygen numbers? And then, finding out other stuff that I didn’t know was wrong with me. I formed blood clots in my legs. I wasn’t aware of that.
Hamblin: It’s really common in this disease. People are getting clots.
Plunkett: I thought I was going to lose my mind with the pain in my legs. If I had a saw, I would’ve sawed my knees off. That’s how painful the clots were. The doctor kept asking if I had pain in my legs. He’d squeeze them, and I felt like, Oh my God, the pain. But I’d be like, “No, I’m fine, I have no pain whatsoever, just doing great.” I was so afraid that if I told them I was in pain, I was going to be there another week. I just wanted to go home and get better there.
They told me that in order to leave the hospital, I had to maintain a blood-oxygen level of 96 or higher. The day before I knew I was going home, they were like, “You could take your oxygen off now; you’re probably fine.” I would keep sneaking it on that whole day because I wanted to make sure I was getting nice and saturated with it. I was afraid that the oxygen levels would drop, and I wanted out of there so bad.
Wells: You’ve mentioned the nights being the hardest part.
Plunkett: When you’re alone in the dark, you’re watching the clock, one, two, three, four, and you’re all alone with your thoughts. I’m thinking, My son just had a brand-new baby who I am crazy about, but I haven’t seen her in two months. She’s only four months old. I’m thinking, Am I ever going to see her again? I’m thinking about my daughters, my husband, and my son. I’m just thinking about everybody, and I’m like, I can’t leave this Earth. I still have too much to do. You think of things you shouldn’t, because that’s what your mind does. I kept saying to myself, You can’t let yourself go down the rabbit hole.
Hamblin: The picture you’re painting is such a stark contrast from us chatting three weeks before this.
Plunkett: Remember me joking, “I don”t want to die; I just had a new granddaughter”? We were making light of that.
Hamblin: When you see people who are still not taking this seriously, not doing social distancing or even denying that this is even a problem, how do you feel?
Plunkett: I get very angry. Like, with the beaches opening up in Florida, I get angry because they just don’t get it. There’s really nothing you could do to make them get it. Make them go to the hospital like I did. That’ll make them change their tune.
Wells: Has this experience changed anything for you? What is it like on the other side?
Plunkett: There’s just so much to be thankful for. I was always grateful, but you know how we bitch and moan about certain things. My husband told me, “I didn’t think you were going to make it. I cried the whole ride home saying, like, ‘Is this it? Did I just drop her off to die?’”
Now my mindset is different. It’s going to take a lot to get me pissed off. My daughters haven’t been able to work, and I said to my husband, “If either girl needs help financially, we’re going to help them out, because who gives a shit about money anymore?” And he’s like, “Well, I did work my whole life to save for this, but I get it, Boots.” I just don’t care about that stuff anymore.