Normally Robert Villamagna would be in his art studio in Wheeling, West Virginia, hammering out old metal pieces from children’s toys, chip cans and coffee canisters that he finds at local flea markets. He has made artwork out of scrap metal for decades and was named West Virginia Artist of the Year in 2016.
But starting July 25, he has not made much art.
Villamagna contracted COVID-19 last month and was hospitalized twice. After more than two weeks, he is still not “out of the woods.”
Every day and every moment is incredibly exhausting, Villamagna said. Even reading a book or typing out a social media post is a challenge. His energy and concentration only lasts for 15 to 20 minutes.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s folkways reporter Caitlin Tan spoke with Villamagna to learn more about his experience.
**This story was lightly edited for clarity.
CT: Robert, how are you and walk me through what these past couple weeks have been like?
RV: Well, right now, of course, my wife and I are both dealing with this. We’re on two different levels, but we’re both getting through it. This started for me on the morning of the 25th of July, and I woke up with some nausea, diarrhea and overall body soreness, and that was the beginning. You know, over those days, what was happening to my body was slowly changing and now we were bringing in elevated body temperatures. I lost my sense of taste, my ability to smell. I was extremely, extremely weak.
And it was a lot of confusion. For four days, I was going through hallucinations in the evening.
RV: Yeah. But when you’re trying to sleep, this thing is playing hell with you. It was horrific.
CT: So then, were you hospitalized?
RV: We went in twice. The first time just for a day, and then came out. But, a couple of days later she had to take me back to the ER. They admitted me for a couple of nights because we couldn’t get my body temperature down and that was a big deal. We couldn’t get my blood oxygen level up high enough to maintain me.
CT: So since you’ve been back home, are things getting better? Or are they just staying the same?
RV: No, they’re improving. But they’re so tiny. I can only look at it the day before.
CT: So, like today, what are you going to do to pass the time?
RV: Today won’t be a whole lot. Yesterday is the first time I went into the studio, for about 90 minutes. It was the first time in maybe almost two weeks. It was exhausting. But it helped me with my sanity because it’s been hard to concentrate more than 15-20 minutes on something. And so, you kind of lose your train of thought. So today I’m going to try another one hour to 90-minute segment if I have the stamina.
CT: Now, Robert, you’ve been pretty vocal on Instagram. And let me just read this one paragraph you wrote, you said, “I know that there are a lot of people who believe this whole pandemic is a hoax, some scheme created to bring down the president. Many others believe mask-wearing requirements are somehow stomping on their rights as a free American. I don’t know how to debate these issues. I don’t even understand the concept. We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.”
I mean, that must kind of hit home now after everything you’ve gone through?
RV: I have a hard time understanding how there could be these choices being made by humans that tend to be politically based. It’s just that this is science and health and people’s lives. It kind of blows my mind.
So, when this thing actually hit me, I go, “Holy crap.” You know, this stuff doesn’t care who or what you are. But people don’t understand it.
CT: As someone who has been through one of the more extreme versions of COVID, and you’re still recovering, what would you say to someone who is doubting the reality of COVID?
RV: What, unfortunately, I think is going to convince somebody who has not been convinced is that either they wake up with this, or a family member wakes up with this. Because, I kid you not — you’re in for the fight of your life. And there’s a period where it’s hard to get through it. You can’t believe it that there’s something that can get inside of you that has so many different facets.
And it’s not the damn flu. It goes way beyond that. It can bring with it so many things. This thing is so for real. It really is.
CT: Robert thank you so much for sharing.
RV: Oh yeah, no problem. Thanks.