Danny Burstein rings me via FaceTime. He looks healthy in his tortoise-shell specs and a full beard. Thank heavens for big miracles. Two months ago, the six-time Tony Award nominee walked out of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City after battling COVID-19. Five days prior, when he first walked into the ER unable to breath and coughing up blood, he wasn’t sure he’d walk out at all.
But just two days ago, Burstein walked out of the New York Blood Center having donated his COVID-19-antibody-rich plasma, doing his part to save lives as part of Survivor Corps. The new grassroots organization serves as “a one-stop shop for survivors to go to and figure out how they can help,” says founder and COVID-10 survivor Diana Berrent.
After receiving a test set up by Moulin Rouge! producers (which was offered to anyone in the cast or crew who wanted one), Burstein exhibited serious symptoms while waiting for results—an up-and-down fever, general malaise, “migraines on steroids,” a relentless bloody cough. But his doctors urged him to stay at home “unless you absolutely have to, because it's crazy in the hospitals right now,” he recalls. When he suddenly couldn’t breathe, feeling the wind had been knocked out of him and like an 80-pound person was standing on his sternum, he knew he absolutely had to.
He chronicled much of his hospital stay in a personal essay. Now that more time has passed, he is able to share more: Burstein walked into a fairly manageable ER—having gotten ill “just before it got crazy,” he says—and spent 20 hours in an isolation room there. They brought the chest X-ray to him, but what it revealed wasn’t good. “In a normal chest X-ray, your entire lungs look black. That's a healthy lung,” he explains. “When I went into the hospital, there was a little strip on each side that was black in the middle and everything else was double pneumonia—so that's why I was coughing up blood.”
Burstein never had to go on a ventilator. “I just kind of willed myself to not have to be or something,” he says. “I was doing my old breathing exercises from every acting class I ever took. I was keeping my legs moving doing the can-can in bed, anything I could to keep myself thinking positively.”
But even with these exercises, and without intubation, “pulmonary issues take forever to heal,” he says. “When you’re three weeks out of the hospital, you expect to see some kind of improvement, and when there's none, it scares the hell out of you. You think, ‘How am I ever going to be able to do anything aerobic again?’ And theatre is very aerobic.”
Now, at the eight-week mark, Burstein feels next to normal. He’s not back to full voice yet, but he can walk 60 to 80 blocks without being winded. (He began walking early on, adding one block a day.)
His most recent chest X-ray—taken during a visit to the ER while experiencing chest pain that radiated down his arm—showed his lungs have almost entirely healed. (And—though the hydroxychloroquine the doctors administered to him for COVID-19 can affect the heart—his heart was fine.)
The actor is home, spending time with his wife, actor Rebecca Luker, who has also recovered from a milder case of COVID-19. Three weeks ago he texted the famous José, his hospital roommate and the partner in arms he lovingly wrote about. (José was doing well at home.) He keeps in touch with his Moulin Rouge! cast in a massive text thread. “We check in to see how everybody is, if anybody's sick, if it's somebody's birthday, or to share something silly to make us all laugh,” he says with a smile. “It means a lot when you're a family like that.”
And, of course, he’s donating his plasma. After unanswered attempts to get in touch with any hospital or blood center to donate, Burstein’s Fiddler on the Roof producer Laurence Holzman connected him to Berrent and Survivor Corps. The organization has been an invaluable resource in answering questions about COVID-19 symptoms, rapid testing, antibody testing, and convalescent plasma donation.
“I want to give back if it can help save some lives,” he says. “I want to make life easier for everybody in a way. I want to help people—especially the people who helped save my life and to make their lives a little easier.” And after a 45-minute donation appointment (“easier than a nap,” he says), he had done just that.
“I'm just so fucking happy to be alive. That's the bottom line,” he says. “After living through what I lived through, I'm just grateful.”