There is at least one person who knew all about self-quarantine, isolation and wearing a surgical mask in public long before it became an everyday feature of life on Shelter Island.
Peter Reich, 62, former town councilman and co-owner of the Reich/Eklund Construction, has dealt with those restrictions as he endured harrowing years of serious illnesses. And after long spells in hospitals and treatment centers, he would return periodically to the Island although he had to stay put, not go out and severely limit the people he saw. But he was happy.
“I was home,” he said last week.
It started seven years ago in the spring when he was feeling generally run-down and noticed a swelling in his neck. His doctor recommended a “needle biopsy” of the swelling, but there was no resolution. His overall health got dramatically worse.
“I started blacking out every time I coughed,” Mr. Reich said. “We figured I blacked out about 300 times.”
He then had a surgical biopsy at Peconic Bay Medical Center in September 2013. “The doctor called a few days later with good news and bad news,” Mr. Reich said. “Good news was it wasn’t cancer. Bad news was they didn’t know what it was.”
His ordeal was just beginning.
Soon after, Mr. Reich’s sister and brother drove to the Island from New York City to celebrate his birthday, along with his parents, and to check in on him. He turned to his wife Loren before their visitors arrived and said, “We’re hitching a ride back to the city with them and getting to a bigger hospital for a check-up.”
Admitted to New York Presbyterian Hospital, after tests doctors were “98% certain I had angioimnioblastic T-cell lymphoma,” and subsequent tests eliminated the other 2%.
Mr. Reich counts himself lucky. “I was so bad I honestly don’t think I would have lasted another 48 hours if not admitted there.”
Back home for a few weeks, he then began a series of visits to a Hope Lodge guest house provided by the American Cancer Society for people receiving chemotherapy. Some Hope Lodges are now open to healthcare workers on the frontlines of helping people through the pandemic.
In March 2014, Mr. Reich underwent a stem cell transplant. “For that transplant they used my cells” he explained. “After harvesting them, I had 10 days of super-strong chemo, which totally wiped out my immune system. The chemo kills the bad and the good.”
He was back home six weeks later with a “very compromised immune system.” Ms. Reich had the house professionally sterilized, and Mr. Reich was restricted to the house and grounds. He was limited to what he could eat, “with everything washed well and cooked dead.” He was told not to have any cold cuts, since bacteria on the deli or supermarket slicer could put him back in the hospital.
A year later he was feeling fine and resumed his active life of work, being with friends and getting out on the water on his boat, a passion that has rewarded and sustained him his whole life. In July 2017 he had a regular six-month PET scan and blood work and received devastating news.
“I was feeling fine but my white blood cell count was almost nonexistent,” he said.
The following day he was told to come to the hospital immediately for an emergency blood transfusion.
After weeks and “dozens of tests” and a bone marrow biopsy, doctors told him he had secondary acute myeloid leukemia. The illness was caused by side effects from the massive chemo therapy he had gone through a few years earlier.
Another cell transplant was ordered and he was back at Hope lodge. “I was away from Shelter Island for 10 and half months” Mr. Reich said. “Then more isolation at home. I was just getting back to semi-normal when COVID arrived and I’m back in isolation due to my compromised immune system.”
For all that, he said he counts himself lucky to be alive, and cherishes the love, support and care, he has received, especially from Ms. Reich.
Dealing with isolation takes strategy, he said. If you can work at home, count yourself fortunate. He recalled the amusement of hospital staffs when he would take over a corner of his room with his computer and papers and work on building projects and bookkeeping. Working in his shop also eased the burden of isolation.
He discovered the pleasures of Netflix, becoming hooked on “House of Cards.” But it was the ability to get out on the water that truly sustained him.
“In all of my time in isolation, I never once was bored,” Mr. Reich said. “There are too many projects to do, boats to build, and ports to see.”