Freddie Fernandez was on the verge of not returning to his Missouri home, with his baby on his lap chewing on the oximeter he uses to monitor his oxygen saturation after months of fighting COVID-19.
Fernandez, 41, a father of six children, spent five months in the hospital, a four-hour drive from his home in Carthage, southwest Missouri, on the most intensive life support system. He came close to dying several times, and now, like many who have been hospitalized for COVID-19, he has turned back.
More than a million people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, and many have survived in the ICU that has led to anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other health problems. Studies suggest that starting treatment in the ICU can help, but this was often difficult to do in hospitals full of patients.
“There is a human cost to the patient to survive in the ICU,” said Dr. Vinay Sarmadevi, who helped care for Fernandez during his stay at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. “It’s almost like going to war and dealing with the consequences.”
Freddy’s memories of those long months shine, moments when he regained consciousness, connected to the machines that breathed for him, clinging to life. He occasionally asked about his mother, who died of COVID-19 in September 2020.
She remembered the birth of her youngest daughter and the first four months of her life. You may never get your construction work back. His other younger daughter is afraid that he will be gone again.
Her partner, Vanessa, 28, was still pregnant with Mariana last summer, when the Delta version came out. She was vaccinated at the insistence of her obstetricians. Freddie was getting used to the idea of getting the vaccine in late August, but it was too late. He was infected.
Born in Mexico City, Fernandez came to America about 20 years ago to do construction work. She became so ill that she ended up in St. Louis, about 270 miles from her young daughters; Miguel, Vanessa’s 10-year-old son and who considers him his father, and his ex-wife, he had three other children, three boys aged 10, 8 and 7.
It was a dark time, with the Delta version returning to flood the health system when many believed the pandemic was coming to an end. Covering the shifts was a daily struggle, and death was lurking everywhere, Dr. Sarmadevi recalled.
In a way, Freddy was lucky. Although there was much discussion about the availability of ventilators, during the delta wave something in short supply was something called ECMO, which stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. It is used when a ventilator is not enough, and pumps blood out of the body to oxygenate it before returning it.
The hospital only had the equipment and staff to care for three ECMO patients at a time. And on September 3, Freddie became one of them.
Vanessa gave birth to Mariana on 13 October.
Away from her fiancée, Vanessa videoconferences with Freddie’s doctors the same day she brought her newborn home. The news was not good: Fernandez was suffering from various infections and was not recovering.
Sarmadevi told that a lung transplant was the best option for her, but it was a complicated option.
“And there is a possibility that Mariana will grow up without a father,” Sarmadevi recalls telling the family.
Some of the most important aspects of recovery are not medical. It has long been shown that family visits with physical, occupational and speech therapists can make a difference for the sickest patients.
COVID-19 upheld those practices in many hospitals, separating families to prevent the virus from spreading.
Fear of infection and staff shortages often also mean less physical therapy, which has been shown to lead to faster recovery.
When Freddie’s family arrived, everything changed.
His room was transformed, with photographs of his family pasted all over the wall. When he was having trouble breathing, his family held his hand and talked to him till the episode ended. “He needed less sedation and painkillers because “they were the same,” Sarmadevi explained.
“There was a lot of love on his side,” he said.
Once he was out of the ECMO machine, Freddie began to recover. As her lungs improved, she was soon able to get up and try to walk. Ultimately the idea of transplant was abandoned.
On February 9, 167 days after reaching the hospital in his city, he left for home.
Vanessa could think “finally”. Freddie had never seen his child. Nor had he seen any of his children at that time. Their conversation was limited to video calls and photos.
Melanie reacted blushingly and gave her older brother Miguel a brief hug before clinging to his mother.
Vanessa kisses the baby and puts it in Freddy’s arms. A few days before his fourth birthday, Mariana smiled at him.
At first, Freddie needed a walker and a wheelchair. He could neither sit nor eat without help.
But now the wheelchair has been left on the back stairs of the house. You can walk across the block carrying a portable oxygen bottle in a car. He’s going to be able to carry his oxygen in a backpack, which will give him more freedom.
With Vanessa going back to work, life “gets back to normal” a little bit.
They want to wait until Freddy is better off to get married.
But they don’t know how much better it will be, or how long it will take.
There are stories of many people who are alive but forever changed, said Sarmadevi, who have followed their progress from afar. Some nurses even became friends with Vanessa on Facebook.
“It’s sad and happy at the same time,” he admitted. “And it’s very difficult to reconcile.”