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Broadway Star Danny Burstein on Harrowing Coronavirus Experience: “Strength Through Stillness” (Guest Column)


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Editor’s note: One of Broadway’s most beloved performers, Danny Burstein has drawn rave reviews for his superlative work in both plays and musicals. His performances have earned him six Tony Award nominations to date — for The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, South Pacific in 2008, Follies in 2012, Golden Boy in 2013, Cabaret in 2014 and Fiddler on the Roof in 2016.

Theater pundits have been widely predicting a seventh for his exhilarating turn as louche impresario Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! The Musical, the runaway sensation of the 2019-20 Broadway season, which looks sure to be in the mix once the postponed Tonys are rescheduled.

Burstein is one of several members of the Moulin Rouge company, including co-star Aaron Tveit, struck by COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. He became severely ill in the days following the March 12 Broadway shutdown and was hospitalized as his condition worsened to an alarming degree.

Back at home recovering with his family — his wife is fellow Broadway treasure Rebecca Luker, who revealed in February that she had been diagnosed with ALS late last year — Burstein was urged by playwright Sarah Ruhl to write about his experience, which he does with moving candor and unflinching detail in the following essay. — David Rooney

It was when I was on my hands and knees in the shower that I knew it was time to go to the hospital.

I’d had a fever, migraines, body aches, my hands hurt so much. I lost my sense of taste and smell and had been monitoring the severity of my symptoms by the hour. My fever was always around 101.6, give or take. Tylenol seemed to be keeping it at bay, sort of. I was already on an antibiotic, an inhaler and a cough syrup with codeine so I could sleep at night. None of which seemed to be doing anything.

My friend described the headaches like a hammer inside his head that was trying to chip its way out. That’s an understatement. The doctors told me if I ever started having trouble breathing that I should immediately go to the hospital. Many friends told me I should already be there. But I waited. After all, there were reports that people were being turned away from hospitals because their symptoms weren’t severe enough, so I waited.

Several members of my Broadway company, myself included, who’d been having symptoms got tested by a doctor. But there was an issue getting our results back and after five days mine still hadn’t returned. But I didn’t need that test result to know that I indeed had COVID-19. I’d been coughing up blood for two to three days.

I was feeling listless and stuffy so I decided to take a shower on Sunday evening, March 22. Shortly after soaping up my face, my breathing became labored, I felt a tightening in my chest. I couldn’t seem to get enough air into my lungs. I felt light-headed and got down on one knee fearing I was about to faint or fall. I asked myself, “Is this it? Is it time to go to the emergency room?”

I stood up, willing myself to breathe deeply and muscle through. But when I stood up, I was once again light-headed and couldn’t stop coughing up blood. It felt like there was an 80-pound boy standing straight up on my chest. The phlegm this illness produces is like white, foamy plaque. You understand how this could build up and prevent one from getting enough breath. My phlegm was streaked and tinged with blood. And suddenly, as if someone else were talking, I heard myself say, “Guys, I need to go to the hospital.”

As my breathing became shallower with each passing minute, I just kept wondering if I’d waited too long. My wife, Rebecca, and our younger son, Zach, looked like the blood had drained from their faces. Zach asked if I wanted him to call 911, I said no because I didn’t want to wait for 15 to 20 minutes, not knowing if I would be able to breathe. “Let’s walk, it’ll be quicker,” I said.

We live close to St. Luke’s on the Upper West Side and so I got dressed and Zach and I walked six minutes to the ER. Along the way Zach kept looking back at me with worried eyes, making sure I was OK. My paternal instinct was to take care of him, but there was nothing I could do.

The mood in the ER was one of steady exhaustion. They were professional and thorough, but clearly overworked. Having said that, the care I received was excellent. After a chest x-ray, my doctor (“I’ve seen Moulin Rouge three times”) told me I had all the symptoms of double pneumonia. He urged me to agree to be admitted because I have a preexisting condition, thyroiditis, and my age was just at the cusp of being worrisome.

I spent the next 20 hours in a small, glass isolation room in the ER. They gave me another COVID-19 test and after 16 hours it came back positive. Eventually, they moved me upstairs to the fifth floor. There were many ups and down during my five days in the COVID unit. I was given two antibiotics and the anti-malaria drug, Hydroxycloroquine. I think the latter helped me turn a corner, but I’m just not sure. The virus may just have run its course too.

I was placed in Room 19 with a kind Ecuadorian man named José with four children. During my time there he called me “Tony” because the admitting nurse wrote my first name sloppily as “Dany” on my huge dry-erase board and it really did look like “Tony.” Getting the nurse to spell “Burstein” correctly seemingly took forever, I didn’t have the wherewithal to correct his “Dany.” So I was “Tony” to José and several of the other nurses who would read the board quickly as they passed through. I was going incognito.

I took the fact that my two main doctors were named Gandhi and Krishna as divine intervention. They were ridiculously overworked, kind and incredibly smart. My respect for them knows no bounds.

My fever would jump up to nearly 104 at one point, I had a day where I had trouble breathing several times and thought it might be my time. I just kept calming myself down every time it seemed dire. Strength through stillness, I kept telling myself, lengthening the back of my neck as I did. It was very isolating and scary. What’s an actor without his breath?

After one particular scary episode, a nurse walked in and saw me shallow-breathing. She asked if I was all right. I sputtered out that I’d just had a spell where I couldn’t breathe. She looked at me blankly and said without irony, “Besides not being able to breathe, are you OK?” I burst out laughing and then coughing. I thought I was going to die and she was wondering if I needed a pillow. I know she meant well and had seen people much worse off than I. She was actually a terrific nurse who took great care of me. But it was just such a perfect example of the time we were all experiencing together. I got the extra pillow.

Despite my scares, I never got as bad as José, who was on a respirator. Three times he couldn’t stop coughing and asked me to get a nurse. I’d hear him whisper, “Tony…Tony…call the nurse,” I would bound out of my bed each time attached to oxygen, fling the door open and scream for a nurse. They eventually would come in and bring him back. The last time I was shaking so badly and began to cry silently in my bed. I didn’t want him to hear how shaken I was. I just wanted him to concentrate on his breath and not be distracted by me.

One day I asked Dr. Krishna how she was as she was taking off her paper gown after a visit. She stopped everything, sighed and her eyes filled with tears and said, “I’m all right. It’s hard on all of us.” That simple honesty and resignation was beautiful and I won’t soon forget her kindness during my tenure there. Strength through stillness.

Our room was near the nurses’ station and I could hear the statuses of different patients. I heard about the many patients who coded while I was there. This “patient needed a ventilator,” or that “patient needed to be intubated” or “rushed to ICU.” At least every hour or so there was an announcement over a god mic, which everyone suddenly froze to hear, that announced an emergency in a certain room. “Patient in Room 12, in distress,” calling “every available doctor and nurse” to that room. Just substitute the room number every hour.

I was surrounded by death and I knew that the longer I stayed in the unit the greater my chances were that eventually it would be me the nurses were talking about. So I spent the next couple of days thinking as positively as I could (hoping mind over matter actually might help) and talking to the doctors about letting me recuperate at home.

Eventually, on Friday evening, March 27, they sent me home. I explained I only lived a block-and-a-half away and they were OK with me walking. Which I did. They gave me an information packet and opened the door to my room. It was so weird to walk out the door of room 19, which only a few minutes before seemed impenetrable, now I was just walking through a door. A nurse pointed to my right, saying, “Down the hall to the left and then the elevators are on the right.” And just like that I was standing in an empty elevator with a blue mask and purple gloves, headed down to the main floor.

I walked home, fairly light-headed, but I was OK. Rebecca and Zach were happy to see me but we couldn’t interact, of course, in any real way. As the days pass I continue to get better. As I type this I haven’t taken any Tylenol in four days — and that’s huge. My lungs will probably take a couple of weeks to fully recover. While I’m getting better, Rebecca has started dealing with the virus as well now. She’s not been tested, but has all the symptoms to varying degrees. We are monitoring her closely.

I watch the news and scream at the stupidity of our president and wonder if my job on Broadway will come back any time soon. I’m so curious to see how theater can move forward. How gathering can move forward. Storytelling. Intimacy. How love moves forward.

I think about all these things and am grateful for these thoughts, grateful for any thoughts. Grateful for my breath. Just breath. Life. I think about the next two occupants of Room 19 and pray they survive.

I’ve been texting José and he is now home as well. He had some organ damage and will need to see a specialist for that, but he should make a full recovery.

I have to mention something that might have saved lives at the Hirschfeld Theatre. It was how quickly our producers acted when the illness hit our company. This was even before Governor Cuomo canceled all Broadway shows. We have 2 p.m. Thursday matinees at Moulin Rouge and we were called for an emergency company meeting at 1 p.m., just an hour before a performance. It was mandatory for everyone in the building to be at the meeting.

The producers and company managers, looking grim, announced that one of our company members was currently at a doctor’s office being tested for the coronavirus. This person had a high fever, chills and other symptoms associated with the virus. Our company manager then shocked us all by saying for the health and well-being of our company they were canceling that day’s matinee and evening performances. The entire theater would be cleaned thoroughly in the meantime and we were to wait for word about the next day’s performance.

Our house manager incredulously asked what he should say to the already long line of patrons waiting outside the theater. He was instructed to tell them that the box office would gladly rebook or refund their tickets, that we were dealing with an unforeseen emergency. Now, it takes a lot to cancel a performance of a Broadway show, but they were doing it unilaterally for the sake of the cast and crew’s health. I thought that was a classy move, one I won’t soon forget.

The cast has remained close via a text thread where we try and keep one another’s spirits up. We make each other laugh telling jokes and sharing memes. And we also bitch about how awful it’s been trying to file for unemployment and dealing with all this idle time. Theater is family and this company of Moulin Rouge has been the best example of that.

José and I had a nurse come in one day to give us an exercise for strengthening our lungs and I pass it along to you. Breathing in through the nose, she said, “Smell the roses!” and exhaling through the mouth she said, “Blow out the candles!” Now repeat that, strengthening each time. Smell the roses. Blow out the candles. Good things to remember.

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