Billy Saracino of Franklin Lakes believes a major dose of Hydroxychloriquine, the anti-malarial drug touted by President Trump in fighting coronavirus, may be what saved him.
His doctor Robert Bock agrees, and says he's had incredible success in using Hydroxychloriquine to treat his other patients.
However, Bock recognizes that the drug comes with a host of side effects that can be fatal if not for proper administration and supervision.
A dosage of Hydroxychloriquine as soon as a patient's condition worsens, and co-presence of the antibiotic Zithromax are also key in the drug's success, according to Bock.
In Saracino's case, they were all there.
"Hydroxychloriquine is a reasonably well-tolerated drug," said Bock, who has a family practice out of Wayne and is also affiliated with the Atlantic Health System.
"It's a good medicine, but it has to be used in a supervised setting by someone who knows what they’re doing with it."
Saracino woke up with a fever on March 13. It lasted the entire weekend and then broke. Saracino thought that would be the end of it.
He self-quarantined himself out of an abundance of caution, but thought that would be the end of it. Bock treated him for a sinus infection initially, and Saracino was "responding nicely," the doctor said.
But days later, things got bad: Night sweats, chills and body aches.
It was around that time that Saracino's wife saw a story on FOX about Hydrochloriquine's possible effectiveness in treating coronavirus. She took a screenshot of it on her phone and texted it to Saracino, who was on the other side of the house in self-quarantine.
"We went to Dr. Bock and asked him to prescribe it," Saracino said. "Without that article, we'd have no idea about it."
Hydrochloriquine, otherwise known as Plaquenil, is commonly used to treat rheumatic illnesses such as lupus and arthritis, Bock said.
One of the known side effects is that it can cause a delay in heart conduction, meaning electrical impulses in the heart are slowed, the doctor explained.
"People need to monitor their vital signs," Bock said.
Bock told Saracino to order a pulse-ox meter, then wrote him a prescription for Hydroxychloriquine, based on his declining condition.
The fateful day came on March 20, when Saracino woke up in the middle of the night uncontrollably coughing. His wife immediately called Bock.
At his doctor's urging, Saracino swallowed three pills of Hydroxychloroquine (at 200 mg each), and another three the following morning before he was admitted to Hackensack University Medical Center.
"I had a feeling [Billy's case] was turning bad," said Bock, "so we started him before he went into the hospital."
The key, Bock says, is starting patients early -- before they begin "decompensating."
"Doctors were using Hydroxychloriquine out of desperation trying to find something that would work in fighting coronavirus," Bock said.
"What we’re finding now is that it actually does more if it’s started somewhat earlier, before somebody in the hospital needing a ventilator."
On March 21, Saracino had just enough energy to drive himself to the hospital, as not to infect his worried wife or two kids, 13 and 11. Bock called the hospital ahead to schedule a chest X-ray, but Saracino was so out of breath when he arrived, he was unable to explain to doctors why he was there.
"The place was completely empty -- I was shocked," Saracino recalled. "I got there, pulled in, and they asked through window if I had symptoms."
Workers left a mask and gloves on Saracino's windshield and told him to pull into a certain parking spot, then go into the ER.
There was only one person ahead of Saracino inside, he said. A woman with a fever.
Unable to explain why he was there, hospital workers initially told Saracino to treat his case at home. But then, a man -- who Saracino says may have been a nurse -- took his vitals. They were bad.
Bock suspects Saracino's rising heart rate indicated that his body was starting to decompensate, "and that's why they admitted him," the physician said, "which is a good thing."
Saracino was immediately taken for a chest X-ray, which showed bilateral viral pneumonia. Then, he was admitted to the ER -- which, unlike the triage area -- was completely full, he said.
"My heart rate wasn't good and my oxygen was low.," Saracino said. "My doctor was on the phone with the doctors and went through all my symptoms. He said 'You cannot let him out.'"
Saracino got his own room and was hooked up to an IV with Zithromax.
"The two medications that show the most promise for outpatients are Zithromax and Hydroxychloriquine together," Bock said.
"Studies show that Hydroxychloroquine with Zithromax is better than Hydroxychloroquine alone."
Saracino spent three nights in the hospital: Saturday, March 21 through Monday, March 23. He had chills, body aches and a terrible migraine. He would spent two hours sleeping, and then another two awake.
But then, exactly 48 hours after taking the initial dose of Hydroxychloroquine, Saracino says he started to feel better.
"I was sweating, I had to change clothes," Saracino said. "Then I started walking around a little bit."
"It’s no question," Bock said. "I think Hydroxychloroquine really helped him through this."
Every patient that Bock put Hydroxychloroquine on recovered except for one, whose condition worsened rapidly over the course of several hours, before the medication had time to work, the doctor said.
He's also had to take some patients off of it because of the side effects, Bock said.
There isn't enough research yet to understand why the drug works, according to Bock.
"They're thinking that Hydroxychloriquine in part is limiting the body’s inflammatory response in the lungs," he said.
After an agonizing three weeks, Saracino is on the mend and feels responsible to let the world know that Hydroxychloroquine helped him, and -- with physician's supervision and guidance -- could help others, too.
"Without my wife identifying the drug, Dr. Bock prescribing it to me or me being admitted to HUMC to continue treatment with the IV of Zithromax," said Saracino, "I don't think I'd be here speaking to you today."
"I am relatively healthy and people should take caution because this virus can hit anyone of any age at any time," Saracino said. "I look at this illness from a different angle than people who have not been through it."
Bock also urged the public to stay home in an effort to stop the spread.
"Half the people that are positive have no symptoms," he said.
"We’re completely at risk by going out and not observing social distance and not being smart. If you have to go out, wear the mask, wash your hands don’t touch your face.
"If you get [coronavirus], don't panic," he added. "Contact your doctor about symptoms and keep in mind the death rate is probably .6 percent, maybe less. It's not a cause for panic.
"Chances are, even if you're old, you’re not going to die from it. If you have symptoms, we can treat them."
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