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Off the ventilator: Patient says 'I had an awakening'

He wore a mask. He practiced social distancing. He sanitized. He worked out at the gym. He was a 41-year-old father of four who even got a flu shot. When the coronavirus nearly killed Steven Abdo, it was just not supposed to be.

Abdo spent five days fighting for his life while intubated on a ventilator at the Lehigh Valley Hospital-Pocono. He was the first ventilator patient to be removed for recovery.

‘I was trying to stay out of the hospital’

After he was laid off from his job due to the pandemic, Abdo was home in Tobyhanna quarantining with his wife, Stella, and their two children, 10-year-old Isabella and 7-year-old Matthew, when he began to feel ill.

“I got a fever that spiked to nearly 105 degrees,” Abdo said. “I knocked that back with some Tylenol.”

He coughed some and felt a tightness in his chest. His throat hurt.

“I had a hard time talking. It took the power right out of me.”

Abdo received an authorization from his doctor to get tested for the virus.

“They told me it would take seven to 10 days for the results. I was trying to stay out of the hospital. I didn’t want to be around ventilators and people who were dying.”

Meanwhile his symptoms worsened until he and his wife made the decision that she would drive him to the hospital instead of calling an ambulance.

“I didn’t want to worry the kids,” he said, “but then I struggled to get into the car because I felt so weak.”

‘I woke up and I was alive’

On April 2, Abdo was taken by wheelchair into a special area of the hospital set up for COVID-19 admissions. At the door, he was separated from his wife.

“They checked my vitals in a pre-ICU unit and they gave me oxygen to breathe better,” he said. “I was cognitive enough to know the doctors were talking about putting me on a ventilator. My lungs were filling with fluid and I was told later, they were they filled to 85 percent of their capacity.”

Hours passed until it was 2:30 in the morning when Stella was informed that her husband was intubated and she was told to go home.

Four and a half days later, Abdo opened his eyes to a different world.

“I woke up and I was alive. I wondered where I was. I wanted to see my wife. I tried to move my arms, but they were strapped to the bed. There were tubes everywhere. A doctor and nurses came in wearing masks and protective suits. I was half in and half out, but I gave them a thumbs-up.”

Abdo was later told that his time on the ventilator was hitting the maximum limit for recovery. The longer the intubation, the greater the risk he would never come off.

‘It broke my heart’

He awakened to a lot of pain. His feet were terribly swollen and tests confirmed his uric acid level was “off the charts.” He had the gout.

“As much physical pain I had, it was worse emotionally. I heard gurgling from patients trying to breathe. I knew people were dying around me. They said two patients died that night. It broke my heart. All I could do is lay in bed and cry.”

Abdo was transferred to a step-down room. Once he was tested to be clear of the virus, they took blood from him so his antibodies could be used to help treat others.

He was tested for heart valve damage which can occur from intubation, and an EKG revealed there were inconsistencies in his heart’s rhythm that would keep him under observation.

He would spend 13 days in the hospital until he was sent home. A goodbye video was produced showing him being wheeled to the exit to meet his wife while surrounded by hospital staff and nurses.

“I thanked everyone there for taking care of me. They were all so wonderful.”

‘I had an awakening’

Abdo is just beginning the long journey back to the healthy life he had before contracting the virus. He sleeps 14 to 16 hours a day and gets winded quickly when he walks short distances.

He lost 42 pounds during his time in the hospital. He still quarantines, wears a mask, and keeps his distance from his children unless he gives them a hug.

He was told that when he was on the ventilator, his very close uncle died in Sweden due to complications from the virus.

“I couldn’t imagine what my mother was feeling. She lost a brother and could have lost a son in one week, and then I have a stepdaughter who is a Navy corpsman on the Comfort ship in New York. My wife just looked at me after all this and said, “I wouldn’t be able to go through what you went through.

“I was always grateful for my life, but when this happened, I had an awakening. I’m even more thankful for my life now. It’s a cliché, but life really is too short. We need to appreciate what we have, do what we want to do and live the best we can.”

He lives each day trusting in his faith to God to help him fully recover. He will have follow-up tests in three weeks, and as soon as he can he will donate more of his blood.

Abdo’s voice cracked when he said he had “put his lips to God’s ears” and made this promise.

“If I can help one person or 1,000 people, that’s how I will live the rest of my life.”

Steven has created a GoFundMe page to raise money for protective gear and supplies for the staff at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Pocono. Contributions can be made on the page by searching his name.

Lehigh Valley Pocono staff cheer on Steven Abdo, who was the first ventilator patient at the hospital to be removed for recovery. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO