Omar Shareef: “COVID-19 took me to hell and back, but I survived”

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Omar Shareef (Photo by Alanna Ford)

Slept 22 days of 55 days in hospital

By Chinta Strausberg

Two days after his 61st birthday, COVID-19 took him to hell and back—a nightmare Omar Shareef, president and founder of the African American Contractors Association, said he’ll never forget, having slept for 22 days during his 55-day stay at a South Side hospital.

Shareef had just celebrated his 61st birthday on March 17. He was on a high, but he began to have breathing problems. His daughter took him to Palos Community Hospital where he was told he had pneumonia and was given Prednisone, but that did not work. “I still couldn’t breathe right,” Shareef said, explaining he was born with asthma but this feeling was different.

“Just the day before, on March 18, I was working at Reverend Jackson’s house installing a new toilet. I began to feel fatigued and I left. Later, l called to let Reverend Jackson and his wife know that I couldn’t return on March 19 because I was too weak to finish the job.

“God put a wall of protection around Reverend Jackson and his family, because they didn’t get this coronavirus,” Shareef said giving a sigh of relief.

“Earlier, I had been with the PUSH people in their conference room. God must have put his arms around them, for they too didn’t get this virus either.

“I went home from Palos Hospital, but my breathing got worse. I could hardly breathe, and my hacking cough persisted,” recalled Shareef. “It just wouldn’t stop.

“Not taking any chances, that is when my daughter took me to Advocate Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Oak Lawn on March 19 where I slept for 22 days and was hospitalized for 55 days.”

After entering the emergency room, Shareef said things went pretty fast. Doctors and nurses were all over him. His temperature was taken, tests run, and then the bad news—he tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I didn’t want to go to the hospital,” said Omar Shareef, “but my daughter kept insisting. I didn’t feel well, but I thought it was my asthma flaring up.”

Always focused and in control of his life as he helped others, including taking on giant construction firms that refuse to hire Blacks, his world began to spin. Shareef said he was shocked and in disbelief when the nurse gave him that diagnosis. “Me, with COVID-19?,” he remembered saying aloud, his mind having flashbacks of recent news accounts of patients with this virus.

“The nurse began explaining to me about my being put on a ventilator. I didn’t know what a ventilator was. As they whisked me away in a wheelchair, I told her do what you have to do.” It was the last time he would see his youngest daughter, Olivia, 19, until he checked out 55 days later.

After being sedated, Shareef said, “I couldn’t lift my hand up to do nothing. From that point on, I slept for 22 days, and of course I could not have any visitors. My daughter saved my life. If she had not insisted on taking me to the hospital, I may have laid down thinking it was just my asthma. It was more than that.”

“I felt like I was in hell but like I was under water,” he recalled. “It was crazy because I had tubes inserted in every hole in my body even on my hands, my nose and in my butt. I had to be on dialysis for almost a week after I woke up,” Shareef said, explaining, “I thought I was still in the month of March. That was a weird feeling.

“It took me a minute to catch up with the dates.”

When asked if he were suffering after effects of COVID-19, Shareef admitted, “I don’t know if it is the after effects of COVID-19 or just that I’m getting old, but sometimes it takes me a minute for my memory to catch up with my thoughts. I now have partial memory loss.”

“Yes, I feel like I went to hell and back, but I survived. God gave me a second chance. I can refocus on my purpose…to help people find jobs and help the homeless,” he said. At times, besides his daughter, Shareef said he felt alone on this medical journey.

“Some people had written me off thinking I was dead,” he said. “There were four of us on the ventilator in the hospital, but I was the only one who made it out. That is why I thank my daughter because they told her if I didn’t wake up soon, she would have to make a decision to pull the plug. That was a lot of pressure on her.”

While still in a coma, Shareef said he heard music. The nurses began playing music and after they played Stevie Wonder’s song, “These Three Words,” which means I love you, “That is when I woke up. The nurse told me to squeeze her hand. I did and gave her the thumbs up.”

Olivia had not given doctors a Do Not Resuscitate Order. “She did not know what this term means and had called my brother, Michael, who explained it to her. Olivia told the doctors not to pull the plug. It was a smart decision because her father woke up just in time to escape legal death at the hands of physicians.

When asked what kept him going given the high number of deaths due to COVID-19, Shareef said, “It was my will to live and my will to continue my job and my mission.

“While I was in the hospital, I was trying to find out how many Blacks were there,” he said admitting though fighting off the virus, he had put on his social justice hat seeking racial equity at the hospital. He was ticked off that someone at the hospital stole two of his phones; one was an iPhone that cost him $2400.

Shareef is known for shutting down and picking construction job sites that have no Black presence, often times bringing his friend, Reverend Jackson and his supporters, or holding classes teaching and certifying Blacks to become $45-an-hour flaggers.

“I was reporting these inequities at the hospital to Reverend Jackson, but he and other PUSH folks said for me to just get well.”

“This experience with coronavirus is the hardest thing I have ever experienced in my entire life, but going through this pandemic and surviving has made me appreciate God more, and people.

“God has given me a second chance, and I am going to use every minute of it fulfilling my purpose…helping others, like delivering the meals for Reverend Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

“I am still on a road of recovery but this road has been blessed by the hand of God,” said Shareef.

The Rona Reports are stories of Black resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of Chicago’s Black newspapers with a citywide distribution our mission is to provide readers with factual news and in-depth coverage of its impact in the Black community. The Rona Report is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network grant.

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