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Brigham and Women’s nurse who survived coronavirus released from hospital; vows to return to job

Emergency department nurse Debbie Buonopane was applauded by her co-workers as she departed Brigham And Women's Hospital in Boston.
Emergency department nurse Debbie Buonopane was applauded by her co-workers as she departed Brigham And Women's Hospital in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Debora A. Buonopane insisted Thursday that her place is still in the emergency room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where the registered nurse has helped critically ill patients for 31 years — especially now that she is a survivor of COVID-19 herself.

“I just really didn’t think I would make it. I thought I was going to die,” Buonopane said in a telephone interview after being released from the Brigham. “I’m a nurse. I’m on the front line. That’s my job. When I get better, I am going back to my job."

Buonopane, a US Navy veteran and a breast cancer survivor, worked her ER shifts treating COVID-19 patients first with no face mask, then with a mask and sometimes with a panoply of personal protective equipment (PPE). But she does not know where and how she became infected.

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“I took care of a lot of sick patients,’’ she said. “I think they [administration] tried the best they can. But when you run out of equipment, what are you going to do?”

The 58-year-old nurse described how she felt the cold reach of the disease during the first week of April when the symptoms arrived.

“It just started off with a chill in my body and drippy nose, which I didn’t understand. And I suddenly lost my taste, my sense of smell. And then I felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife in my knee joints and my ankle joints,’’ she said. “It was so painful I couldn’t even stand it.”

Buonopane, who served as a nurse in the Navy between 1998 and 2003, took her temperature (102 degrees), dosed herself with acetaminophen, and self-quarantined in her home in Quincy’s Hough’s Neck neighborhood.

She got tested and the results were positive. Then the symptoms accelerated.

“The lack of breathing, the lack of air was terrible. I was getting worse. I wasn’t getting any better,’’ she said.

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She finally called for an ambulance, and it took her to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center branch in Milton.

Hospital staff members cheered for Debbie Buonopane as she departed Brigham And Women's Hospital.
Hospital staff members cheered for Debbie Buonopane as she departed Brigham And Women's Hospital.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As she struggled to breathe and fought to control the pain, she said, she made a decision.

“I felt really bad and it started getting worse,” she said. “And I thought, ‘If I am going to die, I am going to die in my hospital where I’ve been for 31 years.' So I asked them to transfer me.”

That meant a role reversal for Buonopane, who found herself being cared for by colleagues after she arrived in the middle of last week.

They gave her not only medical treatment but brushed her hair and helped get her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when that was what she really, really wanted.

"To be on the other side, as a patient, it’s very different. You are helpless,'' she said. "It meant a lot to me. They were so good to me.''

Debbie Buonopane showed off a get-well card as she departed Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Debbie Buonopane showed off a get-well card as she departed Brigham and Women's Hospital.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As the disease advanced, she decided to sign on for treatment with remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has shown to be successful for some patients, but not others.

Buonopane said she thinks the remdesivir helped her, but she is not sure how much. The drug needs more clinical testing, she said.

But, she said, “I think it helped me get my feet on the ground.''

Buonopane left her hospital room Thursday afternoon and rode to the hospital doors where hundreds of her co-workers stood outside applauding.

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Debbie Buonopane saluted her co-workers.
Debbie Buonopane saluted her co-workers.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

She rose from the wheelchair and walked the final steps into a waiting car, raising her arms above her head like Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky.”

With an escort from the Quincy Police Department, she was home in minutes.

“It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had leaving the Brigham. Everyone was there,’’ she said. “I never got home so quick in my life — eight minutes.”

Debbie Buonopane blew a kiss to a neighbor who brought her a bouquet of flowers as she returned to her home.
Debbie Buonopane blew a kiss to a neighbor who brought her a bouquet of flowers as she returned to her home.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Buonopane said she will self-quarantine at home and work on regaining her strength. She hopes to twice test negative for COVID-19 so she can return to the Brigham.

“I am a nurse until the day I die. I will help anyone,” she said. “I want to go back strong.”

A neighbor stood in the middle of the road and held out a sign for Debbie Buonopane as she and her fellow neighbors, along with police officers, gathered to welcome her home.
A neighbor stood in the middle of the road and held out a sign for Debbie Buonopane as she and her fellow neighbors, along with police officers, gathered to welcome her home.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Craig F. Walker Globe Photo Jessica Rinaldi can be reached at jessica.rinaldi@globe.com.