Reunion of a Lifetime After COVID-19

August 11, 2020

On May 5, 2020, 52-year-old Angel Rojas became the 5,000th patient treated for COVID-19 to be released from a Hackensack Meridian Health hospital. It was a joyous celebration that his family hoped for, for 26 long days.

Angel’s recovery was equally celebrated by one of the doctors who treated him at JFK Medical Center: Syed Hassan, M.D.

For Dr. Hassan, it was personal. He, too, is a COVID-19 survivor, having fought the virus early on during the surge. But sadly, he lost his father-in-law to it.

“Seeing my patients recover from COVID-19 is a source of somber pride for me,” Dr. Hassan says. “When it comes to this virus, even small successes are sources of inspiration for me to keep fighting.”

While May 5 was a day of elation, the previous month was filled with days that were the opposite.

Quick Thinking, Swift Action

In early April, Angel came home from work one day coughing and weak with a slight fever. Recognizing that New Jersey was in the midst of its COVID-19 surge, his son, Victor Rojas, advised him to quarantine in a bedroom separate from the rest of the family.

“My dad stayed in the bedroom for a couple of days. My wife would cook meals for him, and I would bring the food upstairs wearing a face mask and gloves,” Victor recalls.

A few days later, Angel’s condition worsened, and Victor began developing symptoms. Victor convinced Angel to go with him to get tested for COVID-19 at an urgent care facility. While there, Angel’s temperature read 103.3 degrees Fahrenheit, an X-ray showed pre-pneumonia and his oxygen level wasn’t exceeding 86 (of 100) percent.

“The doctor told us that we needed to go to the hospital right away,” Victor says. He immediately drove Angel to JFK, and once Angel was admitted, they had to say goodbye, since visitors weren’t allowed inside during the surge.

Just 24 hours later, Angel—who has type 2 diabetes—needed to be intubated because his condition had significantly worsened. “When the nurse called me and told me that my dad had to be put on a ventilator, it was a big hit,” Victor says. “Over the next few days, he wasn’t doing well, and his kidneys started to fail. We were told he might need dialysis, so we gave consent to start that if needed.”

The hits kept coming: On April 12, Victor received his own COVID-19 test results. “I found out I was COVID-19-positive, so my whole family had to quarantine at home until the end of April,” he says. “It was terrible worrying about my dad but not being able to see him. At the same time, no one in our house could even go outdoors.”

Amidst it all, though, a silver lining: the timing in which Angel got to the hospital, in large part due to Victor’s quick thinking. “We’ve seen that when patients come to the hospital already intubated, their chances of recovery are not as high, compared with patients who get intubated after they are in the hospital,” Dr. Hassan says.

For Angel, it turned out that just 24 hours may have made an incredible difference.

Life-saving Plasma

As Angel’s condition declined, a new possible treatment was coming to light: infusing plasma rich with antibodies, donated from recovered COVID-19 patients, into very ill COVID-19 patients.

“When Dr. Hassan told us that plasma infusion was an option for my dad, we researched it and asked him about possible risks,” Victor says. “We decided it was worth the try and hoped his body wouldn’t reject it.”

Dr. Hassan and the other physicians who cared for Angel were cautiously hopeful, too, but they never expected how quickly it could help Angel. “He began improving almost as soon as he received the plasma,” Dr. Hassan says. “Within four or five days, he was able to be extubated, or taken off the ventilator. That’s pretty remarkable.”

Angel’s kidney function improved daily, as well, and there were no longer signs of pneumonia on his lungs. By the end of April, he was moved out of the intensive care unit and into a room to recover. His family was notified that he would soon be released to come home.

“The whole experience was very hard. I was praying that my husband would come out of it. I couldn’t eat or sleep,” says Maria Rojas, Angel’s wife. “Once I found out that Angel woke up and would eventually come home, it was a huge weight off my shoulders.”

Rejoicing and Recovering

When Angel was released from JFK on May 5, Maria and Victor were there in the parking lot to celebrate him—along with a parade of dozens of cheering JFK team members.

“It was an emotional moment,” Victor says.

The reunion with his family brought a tremendous sense of relief for Angel. Today, he continues to improve, and a home care nurse comes each week to check his vitals and lungs.

“Now I am able to get out of bed alone, walk around, go outside and eat on my own,” he says.

He’s also incredibly grateful. “I feel blessed by the team that was on my side,” Angel says. “I’m thankful for all of the doctors and nurses for the patience, care and love I received while I was there.”

For Dr. Hassan, he considers that his calling. “My personal experience with this virus really pushed me to make sure that I give the best care possible,” Dr. Hassan says. “I truly believe that this was what I was made for.”

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