Brian Patno has never seen the masked medical workers who cured him of the coronavirus that nearly killed him. But he knew everyone by their eyes, which looked through layers of protective gear as he lay in the COVID-19 ward of their hospital.
On Thursday, he reunited with some of those who treated him for weeks after he arrived at Providence Mission Hospital in March 2020, just as the virus was descending into California. They were still wearing masks, and he still recognized them.
“It’s amazing how I saw all the eyes and thought, ‘I know you, I know you, I know you,’” said Patno, 62, his own eyes filled with tears as he hugged each half – a dozen nurses who lined up in turn to greet him at the Viejo Mission Hospital in Southern California. “Oh my God, thank you guys for keeping me alive.”
Patnoe and other coronavirus survivors were emotionally reunited with nurses, respiratory therapists and doctors who saved their lives at a time when little was known about the virus. They shared hugs, memories and photos at the hospital’s 50th anniversary event and added items to a time capsule designed to help future generations remember the pandemic. It will open in 2071.
It was also a reunion of staff who volunteered to work in the hospital’s first coronavirus ward. Many moved on to other jobs.
Members of the unit called themselves “Spearhead” for taking the virus in the early days of the pandemic, when they did not know if they had adequate protective gear and what exactly would save their patients. Many later tattooed spears with hearts on their wrists.
“We all felt connected. We all volunteered, ”said Nurse Christine Anderson.
When the pandemic began, protective gear and toilet paper were sorely lacking. Dr. Robert Goldberg, a lung disease and resuscitation specialist, recalled how doctors had to wait weeks to confirm COVID-19 test results for their patients.
“We really didn’t know what we were facing,” he said.
California was the first state in the country to issue a 2020 closure, and things were relatively good in the early months. But by the end of the year, the state had become the epicenter of the virus in the United States, and many hospitals were overwhelmed.
Although the outlook has improved significantly since vaccination, the virus remains a threat. According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the state’s death rate per capita is lower than most other countries, but hundreds of people die each week, and the average daily number of cases has increased by almost 70% in the past two weeks.
The time capsule, created at a hospital about 72 kilometers southeast of Los Angeles, is intended to remind future generations of what happened there during the pandemic. Items collected include a cloth face mask, a fire department patch, a copy of a sign telling people to “disguise to reveal” and “we can do it,” and letters and photographs of patients.
Patricia Gomez, 32, presented photos taken by her and the nurse who gave birth to her baby in July 2020 when she was busted by COVID-19. Her newborn son was able to quickly leave the hospital and tested negative for the virus, but she had to stay for another week because she was very ill.
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“I was afraid I would not survive,” she said. “But I was so grateful. The nurses were always caring. I have never felt lonely. “
Patnoe, who did not work for six months, recalled vivid dreams when he was twice on mechanical ventilation. On one occasion, his late mother, a nurse, approached him and said that he was not yet ready to “come here.”
In the time capsule, he placed a copy of the photograph taken when he was finally discharged from the hospital. That day, he said, nurses and doctors lined up and applauded as he was wheeled down the hallway and out into the street to finally see his family. It was not at all like how empty the halls were when he was rushed to the hospital by one of the first patients with COVID-19.
“I’m so lucky to be alive,” he said. “I think right now we have become a little immune to it because it has become such a common occurrence.”
Since Patnoe left, the hospital has seen hundreds of coronavirus patients. In the COVID-19 intensive care unit, employees counted survivors and recorded the initials of those who did not survive, Goldberg said.
After last year’s winter surge, he said, hospital admissions plummeted and the hospital closed the department.
It is now operational again, and the community is heading towards winter, with coronavirus cases on the rise again, Goldberg said.