Talia Kalisiak, 20, used to spend their days working at their North Tonawanda shop, the Delightful Octopus, with friends, cross stitching characters from their favorite video games or sewing up cosplay costumes.

Growing up, Kalisiak participated in the junior roller derby league here in Western New York. 

Last summer, they would go to parks and look at different animals. Once, Kalisiak found two different garden snakes at the same park. 

Looking back, they beam at those moments, “whoa, look at the boot snoots go.” 

Early November 2020, Kalisiak, who has asthma, began feeling sick along with their family. After quarantining for several days, Kalisiak’s blood oxygen levels were low. 

Their mother rushed them to the hospital where Kalisiak was put in a medically induced coma while on a ventilator for 27 days. 

“I don’t even remember the rest of November 11,” they said. “I just remember going into the hospital on the first floor saying bye to my dad and having to go in the back area and being hooked up to oxygen and then it’s just nothing.”

The U.S accounts for one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths with over 546,000 Americans dead. Then, there are those, like Kalisiak, who survived.

The next thing they remember are the nightmares. 

“I kept on seeing my parents in the dreams and them saying, ‘yeah, we’re going home now’ and then it would change and I wasn’t actually going home and those weren’t really my parents,” Kalisiak said. “It was so hard for me because when I realized I had COVID, I couldn’t hug my mom.”

Those who recover from the virus are at risk for developing new mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, PTSD and insomnia, according to a meta-analysis of psychological symptoms in COVID-19 survivors. 

In the three months after testing positive for the virus, one in five people had a mental health diagnosis, but those patients who were hospitalized are at greater risk, according to the research. 

Talia recalls how quick the losses piled up — how it seemed like one day they could walk and the next they were in rehab.

Kalisiak still struggles to climb the stairs at the Delightful Octopus or press the pedal to sew cosplay costumes. They rely on their wheelchair to navigate their home. 

They missed the death of one of their 12 guinea pigs (all are named after food: tandoori, latkes, etc.) and the holidays with her family.

“I spent Christmas in the ICU,” Kalisiak said. “But at least there was really good staff and all the nurses actually got me a Christmas tree.” 

They were in a coma during Thanksgiving. But from their hospital bed, Kalisiak FaceTimed her family during Christmas. 

Kalisiak recalls the trauma of watching those with the same disease as themselves die, the twang of survivors' guilt, the loneliness of not being wrapped in their mother's arms or comforted by their father.

“Survivors' guilt is real with everything and you can get PTSD from anything,” they said. 

Periodically, Kalisiak caresses the triangle-shaped scar from the trach tube on their neck. 

While the researchers of the meta-analysis noted that most people with COVID-19 should recover without experiencing mental illness, clinicians should monitor for depression, anxiety, PTSD and other neurological symptoms in the long term. 

Kalisiak received mental health support throughout the recovery process.

On January 6, Kalisiak was transferred to Kenmore Mercy Hospital from Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center to help with their rehabilitation.

“Depending on what the rules of the hospital are [the nurses and staff] may be able to offer you a hug or a pat on the shoulder, tissues if you’re upset and crying...they’re there to help you even if it is getting you services like mental health,” they said. 

In late February, Kalisiak was released. The applause from the medical staff and her family echoed through the hospital.

One of the first things they did when they came home was cross stitch Sans, the skeleton dad-pun-champ and cult classic character for the video game Undertale to give to their friend. 

“I’m doing well for the most part,” Kalisiak said. “There are still like some moments where my brain starts to remember one of the dreams or one of the nightmares and it just becomes like a spiral.” 

In those moments they braid their hair or sing. 

“Take a moment to think of just flexibility, love, and trust,” Kalisiak sings from “Here Comes a Thought” from Steven Universe to themselves.

For those struggling with their mental health during COVID-19, Erie County has a list of resources and providers for the community.

Kenmore Hospital provided footage for this video.