How Edward Pierce, Broadway ‘Wicked’ Designer, Fought COVID-19—and Made Medical History
Broadway designer Edward Pierce is the first American to receive placental cell treatment for COVID-19. He and wife Pixie tell Tim Teeman about survival, guilt, and making history.
One of the first things Edward Pierce asked his wife, Pixie, when he woke up after five weeks in a medically induced coma was, “Is Broadway still closed?”
Pixie laughed, recalling the moment. “My husband is a workaholic,” she told The Daily Beast.
After a marathon 46-day stay at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, critically ill with COVID-19, Pierce, one of Broadway’s leading and most highly regarded designers, is recovering at home, having made medical history as the first American to receive injected placental cells as a treatment for severely ill coronavirus patients.
As Pierce, 49, lay unconscious, Pixie blogged about the roller-coaster journey of his experience in the hospital and the experience of their family—locked down at home in Teaneck, unable to visit him—as they waited for news. Pierce and Pixie, married for 20 years, have three children: Evelyn, 16, and twins Isaac and Iris, 15. The producer Scott Rudin and director Marianne Elliott were among many of Pierce’s Broadway colleagues who sent messages of support.
Before contracting COVID, Pierce designed the ground-breaking production of To Kill a Mockingbird at Madison Square Garden, presented to nearly 20,000 New York City public school students. (When fully recovered, he will design the first national touring production of the show.)
Pierce is also the associate scenic designer on the original Broadway production of Wicked (alongside the show’s designer Eugene Lee), and has adapted and supervised the design for all worldwide productions of the show over the last 16 years. He was Tony-nominated, with Ian MacNeil, for Best Scenic Design of a Play for Angels in America (2018). His other productions include Billy Elliot, Amazing Grace, Bright Star, Holler if Ya Hear Me, Pirate Queen, and Ragtime.
Pierce first fell ill in the week of March 9, when the coronavirus was beginning to lead news bulletins (the closure of Broadway was announced on March 13), but before the American health crisis—and era of quarantine and lockdowns—spiraled so devastatingly. He thought he had the flu. His doctor prescribed some medicine and advised him to stay home. By the end of that week, Pierce was feeling worse, not better, and his doctor advised him to go to his local hospital.
When Pixie, 48, dropped off the husband she knows as “Ed” outside the hospital on March 16, the staff would not let her stay with him. “They asked if I was there to be tested, and I said I wasn’t, and they told me to leave, go home, and wait,” Pixie recalled. “I told Ed, ‘I love you, and I’ll see you later.’ I knew they would keep him in. I was very confident he had pneumonia, and I was right. I just figured he would be there for a week, but he just didn’t get better.”
“My oxygen level was dangerously low. They admitted me instantly,” recalled Ed Pierce. “It’s been quite a journey.”
Four days after being admitted to Holy Name Medical Center, the doctors thought Ed was not getting better and decided he needed to be intubated. He recalled that he was FaceTiming with Pixie and his sister at that very moment.
“I was pretty scared. I don’t like not being in control of what is going on. Pixie was with me until the moment the doctors put the mask on my face and asked me to count backwards from 10. I am quite certain that she said she loved me, and that I said it back to her. Those were my parting words.”
“The next thing I know, I had woken up and it was five weeks later,” he said. “What had happened in those five weeks without me knowing was one step forward, two steps back, treatments not being successful, my lungs not clearing out, them trying me out in new positions to get my lungs cleared. I had pneumonia. I was having some kind of kidney failure. There was talk of dialysis, though I didn’t have to have that, luckily.
“I had staph infections from tubes being down my throat for so long, and there was a moment I had pulled out my breathing tube in a state of frustration even though I was fully sedated. My heart stopped for 15 seconds. They had to restart that.”
The history-making treatment he received involved the injection of large fresh placenta cells in around 15 locations of his body (the placenta had been rushed to New Jersey that day from a live birth in Maryland).
The treatment originated in Israel where its creator, Pluristem Therapeutics, claims to have successfully treated COVID patients using it. Seventy-five percent had been taken off ventilators after receiving the treatment, according to a recent Jerusalem Post report.
In Ed Pierce’s case, the use of the treatment was approved by the FDA under “compassionate use.” His doctor told The Daily Beast that he hopes the treatment, if proven successful, could become more widely used in the U.S.
After receiving the placenta cells, Ed’s condition suddenly improved. Over the course of a week and a half, the ICU staff were able to wean him off the ventilator. He started to breathe on his own. The amount of sedation was reduced until he was awake and alert. “Three short days later,” Pierce recalled—a Monday—they removed “all the breathing and feeding tubes and catheters, and anything else hanging off me.”
Even as he lay unconscious, Broadway was nearby. One of Ed’s ICU nurses, Felicia Temple, was a former contestant on the 2017 season of The Voice. One of her songs was “Defying Gravity” from Wicked—and she hummed and sang it to Ed as he lay unconscious.
Ed began to have physical and speech therapy, and started eating food. On May 1, 46 days after being admitted, Pierce was discharged from the hospital and sent for six days’ further care at the Kessler Rehabilitation Center in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, where he was given exercises to help rebuild his unused muscles and regain his strength, especially on his left side due to the way he had been positioned in his ICU bed.
He has now been home for two weeks, recalling the dramatic events of the last two months, the effects on his family—and making medical history.
“If I have provided any inspiration for the medical community as they have helped so many of us in our communities, then that makes me happy,” Ed told The Daily Beast.
“I decided I just had to live, literally, for the day”
Although Ed Pierce’s story is one about a well-known Broadway figure fighting for his life and a potentially revolutionary new medical treatment, it is also the story of a family fighting to survive a trauma and confronting the intensely personal aftershocks—for Ed this includes wrestling with a sense of guilt—of surviving COVID-19. Pixie wants the whole family to have therapy after undergoing such a tumultuous experience.
Her sister Stacey had originally encouraged her to write her candid blog “so that my phone would quieten down. It was insanely overwhelming how many people got in touch. The phone would ring every day, with somebody new or somebody who had just found out, and I had to regurgitate the story again. That was really difficult, reliving past days over and over again while being in the middle of it. Writing the blog was very helpful and therapeutic.”
Every day Pixie would wait for the phone call from the hospital updating her on Ed’s condition. (Her first name is Michelle, but she prefers Pixie, especially, she said, after so many weeks of official form-filling in such grim circumstances as “Michelle.”)
“Compounding everything was the fact I could find no comfort in my family,” Pixie said. “I live in the same town with my in-laws and my sister-in-law and her family. Of course, I found comfort in my children, but they’re teenagers. I couldn’t share with them all my fears.” Writing was “very much” an important outlet, she said.
“The way we were living our lives every day, we didn’t know what was happening. It was literally like being in limbo every single day,” said Pixie. “It was a very different experience to many other people at home under lockdown, who might be doing projects or finding they are spending too much time together, complaining. In our house, we were flowing through the days waiting to see what was going to happen.”
Pixie said that only once did she contemplate the thought of Ed dying.
“I only went there the day after they put him on the ventilator. I actually started to think about what it would mean to live life without him, to be a single mother with three teenagers, one of whom [Evelyn] will be a senior next year looking at colleges. It was not a good day. Then I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t think about the future.’
“I decided I just had to live, literally, for the day. I would wait for the phone call from the hospital. I would take care of the kids and walk the dog.” She paused. “I mean honestly, I would love to have kept track of all my steps. I would walk the neighborhood every day for a couple of hours on the streets, walking the dog.
“I needed to get out, get some fresh air, and walk. I had to be optimistic. I just literally lived day to day, moment to moment. ‘He’s alive,’ that was my mantra. ‘We made it through another day.’ I would wake up every morning. The phone never rang in the night. I was very thankful for that. I would wake up and I would say, ‘He’s still alive, he has made it through the night. That’s all that matters.’”
Every morning was a “reset,” said Pixie, and that included the anxiety she was feeling. “I would wait for the phone call from the hospital. Sometimes the news was good, sometimes it was not so good.” She didn’t put all the medical specifics of Ed’s situation in the blog.
“Having to all of a sudden make decisions for another human being was a real shock. I’m 48 years old. I never thought I would have to make medical decisions for my husband at 48. At 88 maybe, but not 48. Suddenly his life was in my hands, all these decisions I needed to make for him.”
This crystallized most sharply for Pixie when she had to give the authorization for the Pluristem Therapeutics treatment.
“I know some people would have trouble with us using placental cells. I would have said yes to anything they wanted to try. This was his best chance. It was basically a ‘Hail Mary’ treatment for him. He was not in a good place. They did not know what they could possibly do for him.”
The children were “pretty quiet” during the five weeks, said Pixie. “There was one point where my son looked at me and said, ‘Will they be able to wake Dad up tomorrow?’ It gutted me. He was 14. He didn’t really understand exactly was going on. I preferred to use the word ‘sedated’ rather than the word ‘coma.’ ‘Coma’ to a kid is a really scary word. And ‘sedated’ was true: There were times where they lessened the sedation to see if Ed can breathe on his own.”
The children, said Pixie, spent a lot of time in their rooms. She was thankful their school had an extremely structured schedule of work that kept them busy. “Everybody’s reason to get up in the morning was ‘school.’”
Family meals, even in ordinary times, were very important, and became extremely important when Ed was in the hospital. “I didn’t want them to hide out in their rooms or be upset or on their own. I wanted us to be together, made sure we ate together. We came together for lunch and dinner every day, at which point I would ask them if they had any questions or wanted to talk about anything. Sometimes we would play a game to take out minds off things, or watch TV.”
Pixie shared all the hospital information with the children, “sometimes telling two and forgetting to tell one, so I began to text them all as soon as the information came.”
As Ed lay unconscious, Pixie feels that Evelyn “definitely had a version of the virus,” suffering a minor fever and temporarily losing her sense of taste and smell.
Pixie felt she had “a really bad cold and felt really tired. My asthma was very bad, there was a tightness in my chest. I love to exercise, and it’s only now that I’m back to exercising at full capacity. I couldn’t do it while Ed was in hospital. I didn’t have a lung capacity for it.”
Pixie said the “outpouring of love and support” had “blown” her mind. “We were surrounded by the right people. To open the front door every day, it wasn’t just one thing. There were multiple things on the front steps every day, from multiple different people in all parts of our lives.”
There were baked goods, games to play, and a lot of ice cream, she said. She and her daughter lost a lot of weight: “the sadness diet,” as one of her children put it. “No one had huge appetites, but it was good to be able to put food on the table, and now with Ed home we are still working our way through dishes people left which I had put in the freezer.”
A nurse from the township health department called Pixie asking her to retrace Ed’s steps in the four or five days up to him getting sick. “I had to say, ‘Good luck figuring out where it came from,’” she recalled. He had taken the bus into Port Authority, eaten at a different restaurant every day (“he doesn’t like to be bored”), had meetings in the city and New Jersey. “He could have just touched a door handle used by someone who had coughed into their hand. You just don’t know.”
Pixie is thankful this didn’t take place during Evelyn’s senior year. “I’m heartbroken for those kids who were not able to go to prom and graduate.”
In the days and weeks that Ed was in the hospital, Pixie thinks she sewed around 300 masks and headbands for health care workers under the aegis of the Bergen Mask Task Force. “I started sewing as fast as I could for them. It was great. It was my way of being able to take care of the people who were taking care of people who were sick, like my husband. I would think maybe I am doing something for the nurses taking care of my husband. It was my way of saying thank you to them for what they were doing because I couldn’t do it. They are the most amazing human beings.”
A couple of nurses told Pixie that they made it a point, if a patient was about to die, to offer family members and loved ones an opportunity to FaceTime when it happened, and if nobody was there for that patient, then they were surrounded by nurses so they would not die alone. “They have to deal with that every single day,” said Pixie.
“He was ill. He was getting worse, not better”
Holy Name Medical Center constructed five ICUs to deal with the sudden influx of COVID-19 patients. At the pandemic’s height, the ICU housed 50 patients “on any given day,” according to a spokesperson. That number has now “really dramatically declined” to between zero and one new ICU admissions a day.
Dr. Benjamin De La Rosa, an infectious diseases specialist at Holy Name, told The Daily Beast that he had met Ed when he was first admitted, when staff were realizing “how many people in this community were getting this disease.”
Ed, said Dr. De La Rosa, was not the same as elderly or other high-risk patients. He took medication for a skin condition, that was all. “He was ill, like many of the young people we saw. He was getting worse, not better.”
Ed was part of the intense, “furious” wave of patients that required ventilator treatment. “Three-quarters of Ed’s time here was spent on the ventilator,” said Dr. De La Rosa. “That is a really long time to be sick, and we were seeing people like him not make it. We didn’t know who was next.”
Although different hospital staff made contact with Pixie day-to-day, Dr. De La Rosa looked forward to their calls because he had seen Ed at the beginning of his hospital journey, and he felt a connection to him because they were around the same age, both with wives and children. When the doctor spoke to Pixie, she was “very nice, appreciative of what we were doing, and she wanted to listen to how we were doing.”
In late March, Dr. De La Rosa himself tested positive for COVID. “Thankfully it was mild. But I was afraid,” he recalled. “I recovered and came back to work. I was appreciative that I was not as sick as the patients I was taking care of.”
It was important to give families hope, he said. He asked Pixie one day how it had been talking to her children about the possibility that Ed might not survive. She told him that she never thought she would have had to have that conversation with her children.
She also told him, the doctor recalled, that she “lived” for the daily phone calls. He thought about that, he said—Pixie waiting for the call in isolation, hoping not for the worst, being able to give her good news—“and that day I cried. Everything boiled over. It hit me. I saw Ed as a father like me, a husband, son, member of the community. I told him this when he woke up.”
At Holy Name, Dr. De La Rosa and his colleagues had already been conducting a study injecting patients suffering from arterial ulcers—preventing circulation to the lower parts of their bodies, leading to possible amputation—with Israeli company Pluristem Therapeutics’ human placental cells. “It had very good success,” he said.
As the Times of Israel explained, the treatment “uses placentas to grow smart cells, and programs them to secrete therapeutic proteins in the bodies of sick people.”
Pluristem had seen successful results injecting COVID-19 patients with placental cells in Israel, and—as the company had a relationship with Holy Name—approached Dr. De La Rosa and his colleagues to see if they would like to trial the treatment on a COVID patient there. Out of three candidates, the hospital authorities chose Ed Pierce. (The other two candidates survived and have also been discharged from hospital.)
Dr. De La Rosa asked Pixie if she would consent to Ed being the trial candidate, and she agreed.
“We do not know if the treatment worked, if it is responsible for Ed’s recovery. It is too early to tell. But I’d like to think the Pluristem really gave him the extra push to come off the ventilator,” said Dr. De La Rosa. “He wasn’t talking instantaneously, but in a matter of days it was clear he was getting better.”
Dr. De La Rosa only found out after Ed had been selected as the trial patient that he was so well-known on Broadway.
“When we met he just said he designed sets on Broadway, and he said it with the kind of smile that said to me that he loved doing his job. That connected me to him because I like doing my job too. He doesn’t seem the kind of person who would brag about what he does, but I am glad I treated him like everyone else. He wasn’t special to me because he was famous.”
It is not exactly understood if the treatment works, or how it works, Dr. De La Rosa emphasized. The placental cells are not stem cells, he told The Daily Beast, “but they have the ability to control the over-activation of the immune system in such a way as to allow the body to improve from the side effects of COVID, like ARDS [Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome] and multi-organ failure, allowing the body and lungs to start recovery.”
It was evident that placental cells can somehow control the immune system, in how a mother hosts a baby in her uterus, the doctor said. “How is that baby, something foreign to the mother, able to develop in the body for nine months without being rejected?” Dr. De La Rosa said. “That is fascinating. We think it has something to do with those placental cells’ ability to control the body’s response to COVID.”
Dr. De La Rosa told The Daily Beast that placental cells had been given to other COVID patients at Holy Name. The results had been mostly, but not wholly, successful.
“We cannot say definitively this is what helped Edward Pierce,” said Dr. De La Rosa. “But we were all very pleased we had someone who was in the hospital and who against all the odds was able to leave the hospital and is now at home.”
Manfred Green, founding director of the Israel Center for Disease Control and director of the University of Haifa’s international masters program in public health, told the Times of Israel he was “very very cautious” about the placenta cell treatment. “I don’t have any feeling this is going to work. This is a viral disease, not something from outer space, and for viral diseases we’ve always struggled to find treatment.”
Pluristem said the FDA had recently cleared the company to conduct a Phase II study in the treatment of severe COVID-19 cases complicated by ARDS.
As Ed Pierce returned to consciousness and awareness following his treatment, he “was trying to piece together the last 46 days of his life,” recalled Dr. De La Rosa. It had been “humbling and devastating” treating so many COVID patients who had died, Dr. De La Rosa said. “I feel a deep loss and emptiness when a husband, wife, mother, son, sister dies. When a patient like Edward Pierce survives to see, hug, and kiss his family again, it means a lot to all of us.”
“The first thing I wrote was ‘Call my wife’”
“When I was unconscious, I don’t remember anything,” said Ed. “I remember a little bit from before being intubated, and then for three or four days after being in the ICU is pretty foggy too. I had very vivid dreams.”
Pixie recalled that the family had first been able to FaceTime Ed, to watch him sleep and speak to him, about a week and a half after he was put on the ventilator. A week later they did it again, but he didn’t look as good as he did the first time, which was upsetting.
“My son swears he saw me move and react to their voices as I slept,” Ed said. “When I woke and couldn’t speak because of the tubes, they bought me some paper and a pen that didn’t work very well. The first thing I wrote was ‘Call my wife.’”
He has kept that message, other sundry ones (like requesting ice), and others that make less sense that he wrote in his foggy delirium. “What are you trying to say?” he recalled the ICU staff asking.
As the medical staff lessened the level of sedation, the family spoke to Ed more, although he does not recall it. He also does not recall what has become Pixie’s “new favorite family photo” being taken, of him sitting up in bed, smiling and chatting with them all.
Ed recalled waking up in the ICU to see a poster stapled to the plastic sheeting around his bed. It was an inspirational message, such as “Keep moving your feet, keep going.” “Even in my fog, I held on to it as a lifeline. The fact somebody was communicating with me to hold and fight helped me to keep going.”
When he was moved out of the ICU, Ed saw the poster remain stapled to the sheeting. “I couldn’t speak as I had tubes in my mouth. I reached out for it, but it was gone. It had been a lifesaver for me.”
In gestures, Pixie recalled, Ed would ask why the kids were at home and not at school. Pixie felt he was being overwhelmed with new information too early, and hadn’t an idea “how bad things had gotten in the outside world.” As time went on they spoke to him more, and when he was able to talk himself, “it was nonstop FaceTime all the time.”
When all the tubes were finally removed, Ed’s first words to Pixie via WhatsApp video conference were a raspy and jokey “I’m baaack.” She started crying as soon as she heard his voice.
Ed knows Pixie has “shouldered an incredible amount of stress and responsibility.” That includes living with the shock of his incapacitation, then suddenly adjusting to his return, which he puts as going from “33 to 45 on a turntable.”
The day Ed was released from the hospital, a few people said to Pixie it would be too overwhelming for him to see his family leave the hospital en route to the rehab facility. “On my blog I said I had said, ‘Screw this,’ we’re going. My son actually reminds me, I used a different [four letter beginning with F] word instead of ‘screw.’”
Eleven members of the family grabbed face masks and went to the hospital. Pixie met Dr. De La Rosa, who hugged her. “I thought if he can hug me, I can hug my husband.” So she did. That hug was sweet, but too short, said Pixie. “Ed was in a wheelchair. I leaned over and hugged him, told him I loved him, and that I would see him again soon.”
Going to rehab was as important for his family as it was for him. Pierce acknowledges that as soon as he woke up, “I am the kind of person that hits the accelerator. It was very much in my nature to get the hell out of there and get better, to get up and exercise. Hitting fast-forward was great for me, but my family wasn’t quite ready to receive me.”
Pixie was “extremely nervous” about Ed coming home. “When you’re not allowed to see somebody in the hospital, you have no idea who is coming out of that hospital. I didn’t know his strength capabilities. I hadn’t seen him get up and walk. I was nervous about him coming home and then something happening and him having to go back into hospital. That was a terrifying concept for me.
“As much as I wanted him home, sending him to rehab was important so he could learn to walk a set of stairs again, to learn to swallow properly again after being on a ventilator for so long, and the different strengths he needed to work on. It was a good transition, and mentally it was good for me too.”
“I hope it can be inspiring. It is a story of hope with a good ending”
Once home, Ed discovered Pixie’s blog. “It brought what seemed a big thing to the level that people could relate to our family and how it was impacting them day-to-day—like the fear of waiting for the phone to ring and what they might be told,” Ed said.
He has now had a chance to read it himself, “and it helped me put together a broader picture of what they were experiencing while I was asleep. The whole situation was so surreal. It’s incredibly touching reading people’s comments.” The most jolting comments “are the kinds of things people say at funerals: ‘He was a great guy,’ ‘I remember him when...’ The support is so incredible I don’t know how to handle it.”
As he lay unconscious, Pixie was also texting him, sometimes multiple times a day “for herself and for me.” Now he has been going through those texts, but slowly, “because it’s terribly emotional.”
The last two weeks have been wonderful in so many ways, but also “emotionally and physically exhausting” as Ed reconnects with friends to share his story. “I hope it can be inspiring. It is a story of hope with a good ending. I am not one to fall apart, but I am incredibly touched by all the support I have received.”
Ed said the experience had been so profound and huge that he was still evaluating how it would change his life.
“Before this, I have always been one to live my life to the fullest, to take advantage of every opportunity, to work hard and enjoy life. That part of me I don’t see changing. Of course I feel very fortunate that my soul and my strength pulled me through.” The family is Jewish, “but ethically Jewish rather than religiously Jewish,” Ed said.
But Pixie had asked for people to pray for him as he lay unconscious. “She felt their strength, from this incredible network of people all over the world from many different cultures and backgrounds. I think there is a power in prayer. I don’t know what it is, but I am hopeful that it helped pull me through. That, and an incredible drug trial.”
As well as Marianne Elliott and producers Rudin and David Stone, many other theater colleagues got in touch with Pixie to offer support.
The day he returned home, a procession of 50 cars filled with well-wishers welcomed him. “I was so happy,” said Pixie of the car procession. “Ed was a little taken aback by the whole thing. He said something like, ‘Why is this big deal being made about me? I’m just some sick guy.’”
“When you’re in theater, it’s not just your co-workers. It’s your family,” said Pixie. “When people like Scott would call, you knew Ed was loved. Joe Mantello left a message on the blog. It was crazy, all these people my husband had worked with years ago all still feel connected. When you do a show, you’re connected for life, you really are. It’s amazing.”
Ed does not see what he has gone through as changing his professional life.
“I am a Broadway designer. That is full time, plus. I’ve always been good at balancing things, but I think I want to tip the scale towards my personal life, my family, whenever I have the opportunity. I won’t take it for granted maybe in the way I did before. The kids are growing fast. I missed two months of their life, which I now realize is an eternity. One of the big lessons of this for me is to make an extra special effort when it comes to the people closest to you. They are the most important people in the world.”
Ed said he is lucky that his own parents are still alive, living half a block away.
“Seeing what this whole experience has done to them makes me extra specially cognizant that life is short and we really need to not take it for granted and hold those closest to us as tightly as we can.” The prospect of losing their child had been obviously awful for them to endure. “They were living a hell, and now they are experiencing a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, they are thrilled with what has happened, but the stress they have been under is not something you get over easily.”
It has helped them, said Ed, to take on errands and tasks to give them a “daily purpose” as he recovers his strength. “All of this has helped us become closer,” he said. “You come out of this with a deeper understanding that you should take one day at a time.”
The children, he said, have been “incredibly resilient, they seem to have bounced right back.” He and Pixie are sure there are “deeper feelings that teenagers don’t really emote” but want the children to open up when they are ready, and not to force them to do so. “Right now we’re sitting on the sofa watching TV together. You don’t really want to upset that moment, and just allow it to be what it is.”
Now, Ed said he was “knocking on wood and hoping” that he would return to full health, with no residual health conditions. His lungs are clear, he said. He has a little scratch on his face sustained when he was being moved in bed, a tracheostomy scar, and is taking blood thinners to prevent blood clots. He feels “95 percent back to normal”; the other 5 percent coming back from his physical therapy.
“I get scared. If it can happen once, it can happen again”
The Pierce family are unalloyed in their appreciation of Dr. De La Rosa and the staff at Holy Name. A success story like Ed’s means a lot to the staff at the hospital too, as the jubilant, emotional pictures of Ed leaving the facility reveal.
COVID had “overwhelmed” his and his colleagues’ “mental, physical and emotional states,” the doctor told The Daily Beast. People from the CEO down had worked non-stop; he had “checked out” of his own family life, and when patients died, “I asked myself what I could have done differently. There was a lot of doubt. It was a very heavy load on the heart.”
With decreased cases and less pressure, Dr. De La Rosa said he could now ground himself, reconnect with his family, and “process the wounds” of the pandemic. However, given the highly contagious nature of COVID, the country emerging from lockdown, the low number of people with immunity, and the lack of a vaccine, he feels a resurgence of the virus is likely.
“It’s really important for people to take COVID-19 seriously,” said Pixie, as America moves to a post-lockdown footing. “I get scared. If it can happen once, it can happen again. It’s good to take it seriously. Do everything the experts say to do: socially distance, wear a mask, protect the fragile.”
Whether placental cells helped spur Ed Pierce’s recovery from COVID-19 or not, his example will lead the way for other trials on COVID patients, said Dr. De La Rosa. “Edward was the first,” the doctor said. “His success allows this to move forward. Hopefully, if it did work, we have found something good to treat patients with. But,” he repeated, ever the cautious scientist, “it’s too early to tell.”
Until Wednesday, Pixie had not written an entry since Ed’s return home. “I’m missing the therapy of actually sitting down and getting out what is in my head and heart on the screen.”
People have asked if the family are isolating at home, “but nobody has said we should stay away from him and we’re not going anywhere,” said Pixie.
For Pixie, the family is “absolutely” going through a kind of aftershock. “We’re going to seek therapy because we feel like we’ve all experienced this in a very different way. Ed was sleeping and he was ill. And his body is recovering and his he has to wrap his head around missing an entire month of his life.
“I had to hold everything together and we were literally living in limbo, and now all of a sudden we have pressed ‘Play’ on life again. It’s hard to re-enter day-to-day living again. Suddenly we’re all five at the dinner table again laughing, joking, doing things together. It feels so normal even though it’s not.”
On Tuesday, the family went en masse for antibody tests, “all together, the five of us in masks, ‘Here we are, family outing,’” Pixie said, wryly. “Then we went out to get ice cream afterwards. It was so strange doing this when three weeks ago he was still under sedation. It’s a lot to have to wrap your head around. The people at the hospital were really fascinated with the idea of all five of us getting tested—this family of five with one person who was so ill, two who kind of seemed ill and two who had no symptoms whatsoever. It’s a mystery. The three kids share a bathroom. If one of them got sick, why didn’t the others?”
This reporter asked Pixie how she was. “OK,” she said, gingerly. “It’s overwhelming. I feel like we all need different levels of therapy to help every person with what they need.”
Like her husband, Pixie hopes good comes from making their story public, particularly when it comes to people accessing mental health support having gone through whatever COVID-19 experience they have gone through. “We hope by putting ourselves out there, we can let people know that having a hard time after going through this is perfectly normal, and to seek out help is really important.
“I know my husband feels guilt for, as he says, ‘putting us through’ this. I told him he can’t feel that way, that I don’t want to keep what I felt from him but that I don’t want him to feel guilt. I’ve told him that my worry for him was about love. Every single American, in one way or another, has gone through this thing. We need to lift the stigma around seeking mental health help as we deal with it.”
Ed told The Daily Beast that the guilt he feels is twofold. “There is the standard survivors’ guilt. So many people and families were not as fortunate as us to come out of this nightmare with a positive result. But the greater guilt is that my condition and experience caused so much pain and suffering for my family. Of course, there wasn’t anything I could actually do about it. But I do feel guilty that my illness took such an emotional toll that will take a while to recover from.”
The experience has made Pixie think of her mortality differently, “especially as far as my life goes with him. We are in our 40s. It feels like we have eternity left. But this made me realize: No, things can happen and you can lose somebody when you’re least expecting it. And it’s important to really make time for each other. We’ve always done a really good job of making sure the five of us spend time together. I’m very grateful for that.”
If Ed is keen to get back to work, Pixie remains nervous. “I know he has a very compromised immune system. He doesn’t really get sick very often. I worry now about sending him out, especially if he is tech’ing a show. Those hours are long and he gets really tired. And I worry about him getting sick in the future, traveling to different places. His work has taken him all over the world.
“At one point when he was in the hospital I was equating it with the times he worked in Japan, Korea, and Australia, where time was literally upside down and we wouldn’t find out what was going on in his life until 12 hours later. It was like that with the hospital. We would have to wait until the evening to find out how his day had gone.”
Pixie paused. “I’m nervous. Right now my focus is on him being well enough to work, and be able to sit in a theater again for the amount of time a show lasts. We’re all learning about this virus as all scientists are learning about it. Will his immune system come back to what it was before, or be completely ravaged by what he has gone through? I just don’t know. I honestly feel like it was the Pluristem treatment that gave him the edge on everybody else, and what did it for him. Really, honestly, it’s nothing short of a miracle.”
And it’s a miracle whose work is not yet done, and whose effects and ripples are far from over. As Pixie wrote on her blog Wednesday: “It’s been such a blessing to take the chaos of what is in my head and my heart and throw it up on the screen. I’m so very grateful to all of you for sticking with us through all of it so far and for now, I think I’ll keep making periodic updates until I feel like our healing journey is truly at an end.”