EXCLUSIVE! Iza Calzado: "I Was COVID-19 Patient 878, And Here's My Story Of Survival"
In her most in-depth interview, Iza opens up about her whole COVID-19 experience as well as how she's coping with survivor's guilt and rethinking her life after going through a life and death situation
Life is beautiful.
Life is full of rosy tomorrows, life is long, life is all your own to spend in ways that make you happiest—until it isn't.
For 11 days, multifaceted personality Iza Calzado laid in her hospital bed, looking up at a white ceiling with her labored breathing echoing in her ears and her pulse throbbing with an intense cocktail of IV-delivered medication sloshing in her weakened veins. As her body struggled to keep itself alive, her spirit went through its own calvary; from the moment her doctors considered to intubate her, she knew. She came to terms with how death could be waiting for her right around the corner.
As her husband Ben Wintle, the CEO and founder of Booky App, stayed by her side geared up with a face mask and complete Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) garb, she allowed herself to confront her mortality. After all, each good night could have turned out to be a goodbye.
"[There were moments when you ask,] 'Why me?’ I’m healthy. I’m young. And maybe that’s why. And then immediately a voice says in my head, ‘Why not?’ That’s when I kinda knew that I was being handpicked perhaps to experience it, understand it, have my own realizations that are very necessary in life, and give me more purpose, perhaps," she shares.
Iza was the 878th patient in the country to test positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) disease.
Today, she joins the hundreds of Filipinos who have made full, often miraculous, recoveries. And like her fellow survivors, their loved ones, the healthcare workers who cared for them, and everyone who has become deeply involved in this crisis, she has much to teach us all about life.
"Being in the hospital and that whole COVID experience has made me realize what really matters in life. Relationships are number one: relationship with God, relationships with people around you... It’s such a humbling experience of really recognizing how people really need people, how we need each other in these times of darkness. How we need hope, how we need our faith—these are the things that matter most," she reflects.
The chain of events that led to her positive COVID-19 diagnosis
"It began with a general feeling of flu-like un-wellness on Friday, March 12."
She went to work the day before, worked out, then felt something wasn't right. The body malaise was soon followed by a dry throat and not even a full 24 hours later, Iza developed a cough. A trip to the pulmonologist revealed nothing serious at the time and ended up with a prescription and strict advice to be observant of her body; if things got worse, she needed to let them know.
By March 13, she was in bed with a fever.
"By Tuesday, [March 17], I could sense that my holistic treatments weren’t improving my condition so nag-te-text na ako with my pulmonologist. I said, 'I think my symptoms are progressing.'"
As the weekend approached, Iza had definitely weakened significantly. Iza and her husband had their suspicions about her condition as she had fallen ill right around the time Metro Manila COVID-19 cases were seeing an uphill climb. They hoped for the best, but expected the worst.
"I was so dyahe to get a COVID test kasi I knew that the testing kits were few and far between. This was the first week, 'di ba? I felt that if I went to the hospital and get tested, people might say they prioritized me because artista ako. Alam mo 'yung, all these things were in my head, and that’s the last thing I wanted... So I was thinking and I was consulting and they were like, 'Oh you’re fine because you’re young and you’re strong.' But little did I know that I already had pneumonia," Iza recalls.
On Friday, March 20—just one week after she developed a temperature—she was admitted into the hospital.
Two days later, she was transferred to the telemetry unit.
"That was the first hit of 'Oh my god, this is more serious than I thought it was...' It’s like, 'Oh, this is life and death,'" she narrates, remembering how her tears flowed freely upon hearing the news. After hearing that her pneumonia was progressing and that she may be transferred to the ICU (intensive care unit) and intubated, she asked her nurse if this was it, if her time on Earth was up. He casually told her no, of course not. She's a strong woman, after all, as seen in some of her most iconic roles.
On March 26, it was confirmed: she had COVID-19.
What followed her COVID-19 diagnosis
By that time, Iza's state had deteriorated so badly that she had noticeable weight loss, was too weak to bathe herself or even go to the bathroom (because of the oxygen/respirator she needed to be attached to in order to breathe), lost her appetite (eating an egg per meal was torturous), and needed a commode in her room.
"You put in a commode in my room and that means, you know. You know what that means. It’s so humbling. I didn’t imagine going through this at such an early stage in my life. At only 37... bakit nangyayari 'to sa'kin?" she asked.
As if the COVID-19 diagnosis wasn't enough, Iza's doctors also discovered that she had contracted a bacterial infection (Acinetobacter baumannii)—and it was attacking her lungs too, just as COVID-19 was. This meant even more medication, and of course, more reasons to keep Iza awake at night. In a vicious cycle, this longtime insomniac suffered from lack of sleep from the stress, the lack of sleep meant a compromised immune system, and a compromised immune system ultimately resulted in a body unable to cope with not one, but two infections—and then the cycle restarts.
"Most nights there, or mornings rather, I would be sleeping at around 4 or 6 a.m. There were only two nights that I had decent sleep, siguro sa pagod na," she remembers.
By her fifth day at the hospital, as one of her nurses was tending to her, Iza half-said and half-joked that a good shampooing would really help. To Iza's surprise, her nurse—the kind of person caring is second nature to—offered to help her out.
"In my head [I asked], 'May ganu'ng service? Kasama ba 'yon?' Pero s'yempre inisip ko na naman, 'yung baka mamaya sabihin na naman nila na, 'Eto namang artistang 'to, kung maka-demand... It was such an emotional moment also for me," she says.
"[I came] to that realization that really, in life, all we need are the simplest and the most basic things when you’re stripped off of everything, and when you’re in a life and death situation," she shares.
At this point, Iza takes a step back from centerstage and makes it a must to shine the spotlight on those deserving of our attention: doctors, nurses, every kind of frontline worker in and outside of hospitals who have put their lives on the line, so that their kababayans wouldn't have to.
As she recounts her harrowing hospital experiences, Iza describes an intimate moment she shared with her nurse.
As she shed tears while undergoing painful diagnostic tests, she noticed that the nurse was, too. She was compelled to ask him why.
"Ms. Iza kasi, pagod na pagod na rin kami," he said.
"Pagod na pagod na po kami. There are not enough nurses. Konti lang kaming pumapasok dito ngayon. Gusto din naman naming makapiling 'yung pamilya namin, pero walang ibang gagawa," he continued.
"Nag-iiyakan kami and it’s a human, heart to heart connection moment wherein you feel na you’re all in it together and you just feel so grateful for the care and the work that they do. And that went on for days," Iza says.
[I came] to that realization that really, in life, all we need are the simplest and the most basic things when you’re stripped off of everything, and when you’re in a life and death situation
The moment she decided to let people know about her condition
"People will talk and that’s something we accept," she says.
As a celebrity, it was an inevitability that she needed to accept. Big or small things that happen in her life will always be material for the public—and her COVID-19 diagnosis was as big as it got.
When she had learned that there were rumors circulating that she was in the ICU and intubated, she felt she needed to make clarifications and have the truth come from her, herself.
It was a difficult decision to be transparent and admit that she had been diagnosed. A week before she was hospitalized, as she battled what she thought was just severe flu, she made a comment on Instagram that was totally taken out of context—"there was this whole thing about me being a privileged 'biatch,'" Iza says. Expectedly, people played the "Buti nga sa'yo" card. Some even celebrated her sickness as some twisted form of karma.
"In the grand scheme of things, you know, you will always have that. And that’s why it was so important for me to make sure that I would always come from an optimistic mindset and that I would be hopeful. If there was any negativity being thrown my way, I would power block it and have people help me power block all this negativity. And so it was hard!" Iza looks back.
It was a collective effort, her healing.
She fought hard, but her husband and her medical team fought right alongside with her. She also had a group of prayer warriors she humbly asked to offer her intentions up to God. That's another she learned throughout this ordeal. As a body love advocate, she's always believed in holistic well-being; you eat right, you exercise right, you think positive thoughts, you harbor positive feelings, and you'll be okay. However, as healthy as she may have seemed, she admits there were times when she may not have listened to her body enough. All those late nights and those instances when she overexerted herself at work and during workouts—unmindful of the subtle signs her body could have been sending her—weakened her immune system and made her more susceptible to viral or bacterial infection.
After recovering from COVID-19, her body love advocacy has taken on a whole new, deeper meaning, extending way beyond the physical attributes and digging further into what's beneath. Iza emphasizes, "Love, respect, and listen to our bodies. Health is truly our greatest wealth."
This phase in her life has been a great eye-opener, strengthening her faith now more than ever.
"I guess God was telling me like, 'Let me know how badly you need me and I'll be there for you.' And you think about all these moments of not being there for God, alam mo 'yun? I’m guilty that the past year and a half, I haven’t been going to Mass... I knew I could do more but pinabayaan ko Siya. Sabi ko, 'I pray every night. I have my gratitude journal. I feel like I have a spiritual connection with God, but I guess, what’s one hour of your life, 'di ba, just to show Him that, 'Hey, I really appreciate you,'" Iza contemplates.
She doesn't exaggerate when her week and a half at the hospital was intensely transformative. It was unfortunate that it took a life and death situation to bring her true enlightenment and to come from a deeper understanding of gratitude in her life, but in the end, she was still right—COVID-19 has led to something greater, something much more meaningful than being able to say I survived. Now, survivors like Iza can say, I lived, and I will live differently, starting today.
It's no longer a matter of being able to breathe again—it's a matter of making every breath count.
Less than one week after Iza learned of her positive COVID-19 diagnosis, she got re-tested, and the good news came.
Love, respect, and listen to our bodies. Health is truly our greatest wealth
Her thoughts when she was told she had tested negative
"By Monday, the doctor comes in and he’s like, 'You can go home tomorrow after your antibiotics.' I was so happy to hear that... The minute he said that, by that time, I was already quite weak from the antibiotics—weak, but you're so happy. And then in the afternoon, the nurse came in and said, 'Mumsh, negative ka!’"
A celebration—and a prayer of thanks—was due. Iza made it. She and Ben made it. Her team of doctors and nurses, they made it too, and the time they spent away from their families was not in vain. It was a success on all fronts.
"In the hospital, you’ll hear them celebrate when a patient tests negative. You hear them even in the hallways... I remember noong nandoon pa ako in the first few days. Sabi ko, 'Ano'ng meron sa labas? Bakit parang masaya kayo?' Sabi nila, 'Kasi nag-negative po 'yung patient namin," says Iza.
Iza officially became a part of a different COVID-19 statistic; no longer a confirmed case statistic, she became a tally in the country's number of full recoveries.
In the hospital, you’ll hear them celebrate when a patient tests negative. You hear them even in the hallways...
What the experience taught her about the stigma attached to COVID-19 patients
For those who know, encounter, or could come into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, has recovered from it, or is a PUI (Person Under Investigation) or PUM (Person Under Monitoring), Iza says, please do not treat them like a social outcast. Do not contribute to the stigma surrounding the disease, and most definitely, do not crucify them for getting sick.
"You shouldn’t blame a person for getting COVID. Who wanted to get that?" she says.
"You’re trying to find a reason, trying to find a meaning, and you’re trying to understand this new thing, new world, new viral infection that could possibly kill you... I think it’s awareness, responsibility—these are the things that we should all practice... It’s just trying to find that balance of being sensitive enough, being responsible, being aware, and just being healthy," she continues.
And for those who do find out they're COVID-positive, be honest. It is a moral and civil obligation to tell those you came into contact with the truth, so that they too can protect their loved ones. Help them help save lives.
You shouldn't blame a person for getting COVID. Who wanted to get that?
Her message to frontliners, COVID-19 patients, survivors, and Filipinos as a whole
The fact that the virus has been a great "leveling force" throughout the world has been a powerful point of reflection for Iza. No one was spared, and everyone is battling the same invisible enemy. From the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, from east to west, from young to old, the grander scheme of things has ultimately hit the restart button on all our lives.
There is a lesson to be learned, and it is up to us to discover it and make something of it.
Recovered patients like Iza are simply mouthpieces to this message. They are messengers, and we must heed their words with open hearts and minds.
As positive cases continue the uphill climb in the Philippines, Iza wishes to send a message to all:
"Sa mga kababayan nating frontliners, everyone risking their lives to make sure we stay safe and well, my sincere and most heartfelt gratitude to each and everyone of you. I wouldn’t be alive and we wouldn’t be having this conversation if not for them," Iza stresses.
She adds, "Mga kababayan natin, we can beat this pandemic but we have to consciously do it together."
Although she has survived her own ordeal, everyone is battling against this invisible enemy and the changes it has brought to our lives, one way or another. In these dark times, the spirit of solidarity is the very thing people are holding onto for hope. People from all walks of life are doing their part to help in the COVID-19 relief efforts. And for survivors like Iza, they can be of assistance to other patients by donating their plasma, because the bodies of those who have overcome illnesses produce antibodies that could potentially ward off viruses. This is an opportunity Iza is currently exploring.
To be an eligible plasma donor, the COVID-19 survivor must be a asymptomatic for at least 14 days and must yield a negative result after one nasal swab test.
After the two-week recovery period required for plasma donation, Iza did the necessary tests but the results showed that her hemoglobin is below the minimum cut-off, so she couldn't proceed with being a donor just yet. After about two weeks, if she manages to increase the hemoglobin in her blood, only then could she finally donate.
"I am on a mission to get more iron in my body," Iza says with determination. If there's a will, there's a way, and Iza will do everything she can to help. And she encourages her fellow survivors to rise to the occasion as well. Everything happens for a reason, and perhaps, they survived for a reason, too—and that reason could be for them to become instruments of change even through the simple yet selfless act of donating plasma to fuel lives anew.
I wouldn’t be alive and we wouldn’t be having this conversation if not for them [the frontliners]
What she did when she was discharged and returned home
When Iza returned home, the space was familiar, but the atmosphere was not. Iza was a changed woman, and life would never be the same for her again.
Still reeling from the deluge of medication she was given, Iza had developed tremors and speech difficulties as side effects, and needed assistance for basic tasks. But she knew she would be alright. The worst had come to pass, and besides, her appetite had bounced back. Sooner than later she was snacking on popcorn and chips with her eyes glued to the screen (it was Netflix's Itaewon Class for days for this recovering patient—and generous servings of kimchi, too).
When she regained a little strength, she gradually added physical activity back to her routine. Getting some sunlight was on the agenda, and so was getting back to dancing (but dancing to just six songs at most for now, and holding back from weight training for the meantime). She's also doing breath work/training with the help of an app called Apnea Trainer; she does this everyday for five to eight minutes to strengthen her lungs, following it up with meditation afterwards. Iza makes sure to pay extra attention to her health now, because COVID-19 survivors need to really strengthen their immune system and their lungs since a study shows that the coronavirus infection may cause long-term effects throughout the body.
How she feels about the new reality she's living in now
Her mental health, however, is a different story altogether and requires a whole other form of TLC on its own.
"I watched the news, because I really kept as far away as possible from the news. And even in chat groups, 'di ba? They send the coronavirus statistics and I would try not to read it because it would trigger me. I would cry. I would still feel very heavy... Looking at the numbers alone would make me cry because it’s unfair. Not everybody gets another shot at life and that’s a lot to process," she reveals.
"It’s tough and that’s just one of the things that's not fair about the whole thing, and it’s not just older people. I’ve learned about even people younger than myself who were taken away and that actually sucks... That’s why we really have to make it count. After this, we have to be better people. Individually, collectively, we have to be better humans. Kumbaga, para sa ano ba lahat ‘to? Kumbaga, ang hirap-hirap nito para sa lahat; there are people starving, there are people dying, there are people risking their lives. We have to make it count," she adds.
Looking at the [COVID-19] numbers alone would make me cry because it’s unfair. Not everybody gets another shot at life and that’s a lot to process
How she's recovering and rethinking her life post-COVID
Every little thing that may have seemed trivial before is suddenly magnified for better appreciation. That peaceful time spent just by looking out the window and embracing the sunshine, that chance to walk around again (even if it was just for a bit, post-checkup, after testing COVID-19 negative twice), that ability to do Zumba again—these things help keep her sane now as she deals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is because of this PTSD that Iza felt she needed to reconnect with a healer she met last year named Christelle Chopard, an Expert Consultant for Life Transitions and Project Development. It's Christelle's mission to support people in their journey of healing, awakening and manifestation. Through her help, Iza was relieved of the guilt she felt towards her mom's demise some 18 years ago. A message that was sent to her through a dragonfly, which is viewed as a messenger in healing communities, made her realize that even after all these years, her mom is still watching over her. Christelle told Iza then, "You know, sometimes it's just their time. It has nothing to do with you and you shouldn't blame yourself."
And now, after surviving a life and death situation, while her heart is brimming with gratefulness, an amount of guilt is trying to make its way into her system as well. Christelle helped her process her feelings about survivor's guilt—because she survived, Iza was pressured to make her life count. And she must, but this strong will to live must come from a place of love and light and neither burdened by nor tinged with guilt and pressure.
Instead of vibrating the frequency of guilt, what she chooses to focus on is the vibration of love and connection, "fortifying the messaging of how relationships matter, human to human connection, kindness, empathy, compassion, and all that's good in the world."
"I think, right now, what’s helping me deal better with life is the fact that I know at some point, all of this will be over and we can begin again," Iza says. "I don't know exactly how the world will change because everything is going to change—every human, every industry, every household. We will have to rethink the way we used to live and kind of understand how we’re supposed to live moving forward."
Moving forward, she wants to be more vocal about how much she appreciates the people around her. Simply going through all the well-meaning messages she received when she was in the hospital helps a lot during this recovery period; it brings her so much joy, and these people telling her how much she means to them make her want to do the same for them.
"I’ve never been shy to express love and hug people. I’m a hugger and, you know, now even more so, I find myself telling people what I love and appreciate about them, or even just casually saying 'I love you,' which maybe before I'd be more dyahe to do," Iza enthuses. "Every opportunity I get to express to people how much I appreciate, value, and love them, I will do so because tomorrow is never promised."
Moving forward, she wants to become a better person and a better stewardess of Mother Earth. She's already thinking of ways she can contribute to the cause of WWF-Philippines, for which she serves as an ambassadress. "Now, I'm slowly rethinking how, collectively, we can be better in the way we consume and how we can adopt more sustainable practices in life so that Mother Earth can continue to breathe," she says.
Moving forward, she wants to find that harmony between, life, work, relationships, and social and moral obligations. There's so much more she wants to do, so much more she wants to give herself to, but she vows never to forget to leave enough for herself too.
On top of all these, she still holds onto that dream of becoming a mother. "The thought of starting a family, even in the hospital, has kept me hopeful and excited for what the future holds," Iza shares.
The future may be uncertain, but the present, there's a reason it's synonymous to a gift. It's the gift to live in the moment. Making life count doesn't need to come in the form of grand events, it can simply be by being good and doing good, being hopeful, living life with no regrets, and finding happiness in the small things.
When she had a one-on-one meditation session with Christelle, the healer, last year, Iza had a vision of herself in white. In that vision, she was at her most peaceful state. When she was in the hospital, she was reminded of this and asked herself, "That vision doesn't mean I'm going to be in heaven naman 'di ba?!" Thinking about it now, she didn't feel dead then; "I felt more alive," she quipped.
"Perhaps it was like a manifestation of the next level of life, which is what I'm experiencing now, my rebirth," Iza ponders. "It feels like there’s so much more light in me."
Life for Iza today is the most beautiful it has ever been.
Every opportunity I get to express to people how much I appreciate, value, and love them, I will do so because tomorrow is never promised
*The cover photo is from our latest shoot with Iza for our #MetroMostStylish2020 campaign.
Produced by Kat Cruz-Villanueva and Judy Arias
Text by Sara de los Reyes and Grace Libero-Cruz
Interview by Geolette Esguerra and Kat Cruz
Photographs by Seven Barretto
Creative direction by Chookie Cruz
Makeup by Juan Sarte
Hairstyling by Jan Edrosalan
Production design by Angelique Abesamis-Castro
Styling assistants: Hillary Lee, Gabby Gamboa, and Marie Cu of Styledit Group
Shot on location at Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila
Special thanks to Margot Calimon of Sofitel Philippines Plaza Manila
Additional photos courtesy of Iza Calzado