In a few days, on April 5, Ernesto Castro will celebrate his 35th birthday. It’s a special day that he feared he would never see.
About two weeks ago, Castro began feeling ill. Maybe his asthma was acting up. After all, he’d been training for a marathon.
Castro is a man who has lived his life helping others. He has given his children, a son, 12, and a daughter, 18 months, his whole heart. At work, he’s a social worker at a local health center and he works to break down barriers for others and solve problems for his neighbors.
When he came down with a runny nose followed by congestion, Castro figured he was getting the flu. When his symptoms worsened, he realized that this time, he was the one who needed help.
He remembers the hospital, his care givers and how awful he felt.
“It was like the flu, but not the flu,” he said. “It is hard to explain. I lost a lot of sensations, not just my breathing, but I couldn’t think correctly. I felt like my lungs were getting harder, and the only thing to make me feel better was to cough up something that wasn’t there. The sensation was overwhelmingly hard because of the breathing, congestion and constant coughing,” he said.
Just before he was placed in a medically-induced coma and on a ventilator — he learned he had the novel coronavirus. He fought for his life.
After 10 days in the hospital, nurtured by the care of brave nurses and doctors, Castro donned a clean face mask on March 30. Nurses pushed his wheelchair out of UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland. He was overjoyed to see his girlfriend and his daughter. Because visitors had not been allowed in the hospital, Castro had not seen his family in nearly two weeks..
When nurses wheeled him to his girlfriend’s car, he saw his little girl smiling at him from her car seat. He couldn’t hold back the tears.
“I cried,’’ he said. “I cried the moment I saw her. I felt like I had missed out on months of her life. And I need her like I need oxygen. She is my joy.”
The attack of the coronavirus
A caseworker at a care facility in Greeley, Castro spends his days helping clients and troubleshooting problems.
“Some patients you connect with, and I was raised so when someone extends their hand, you shake it with a yes, sir, yes, ma’am,” Castro said. “I was interacting with a patient, helping him out, and I remember shaking hands with him, and I forgot to sanitize my hand after. Later, I remember having that odd feeling: Was that guy sick? Did he have the flu?”
While its impossible to know whether Castro contracted COVID-19 that day, he soon noticed the runny nose, congestion and a cough. He took a few sick days and quarantined himself at home.
“I’m the type of person who always looks at the good side of things,” he said. “I’m rarely ever sick. I was confident that it was just the flu and not a big deal.”
But, as a health care worker, Castro decided to be “better safe than sorry” and scheduled a visit with his primary care doctor.
Based on Castro’s symptoms, his doctor suspected COVID-19. Castro still was not convinced. He held onto his doctor’s note for off-site COVID-19 testing and headed home to isolate himself and ride it out.
“I thought it was just me having the flu and being a big baby,” he said.
Four days later, Castro was too weak to drive himself to a testing site. He started to hallucinate, and his other symptoms were now much worse.
COVID-19 is more severe for older people and those with compromised immune systems and other chronic conditions. Castro, though, found out the virus does not discriminate. Young and healthy, Castro had risk factors that include prediabetes and asthma, both of which made him more susceptible to complications from the virus. And working in a health care setting had put him at greater risk of contracting it.
“I had always been kind of healthy, but I broke down,” he said.
Castro’s girlfriend, Claudia, took him to the local emergency room at UCHealth Greeley Hospital.
Caring for a COVID-19 patient
Health workers greeted him and jumped into action.
“Immediately they started working on me,” Castro said.
Caregivers placed a mask on him and isolated him in a patient room, where a doctor and nurses ran tests, listened to his lungs and ruled out other possibilities. He was tested for COVID-19.
It took days to receive confirmation that he did indeed have COVID-19, but that didn’t delay care. Castro’s symptoms were severe enough that a positive test wouldn’t have changed his care plan. Medical providers needed to act immediately to give him a fighting chance to survive and make it to his next birthday.
“I can’t stress enough the amazing job they all did with me,” Castro said. “As soon as I walked in I felt that they cared. They truly do love what they do and have a passion for it.
“If it wasn’t for the UCHealth staff, I don’t think I’d be here.”
Dealing with severe COVID-19
That evening, Castro was whisked away in an ambulance to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, where he spent the next nine days in the intensive care unit before becoming stable enough to be moved to the medical unit.
Just before he was moved, he was able to call his girlfriend.
“If I don’t see you guys, this is goodbye,’’ he told her. “I love you guys.”
Castro was right to be worried. His condition grew worse.
Three days into his visit, test results confirmed COVID-19.
“I just lay there, thinking, ‘What’s the next step? What’s going to happen? Is it curable? Am I going to die?’” Castro said. “I’m not going to lie — I was terrified.”
Castro’s condition deteriorated and his medical team made the decision to put him in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator. His lungs were too weak and his heart was trying to compensate and working too hard. His body needed to rest in order to fight. Doctor’s reassured him that they had placed people in medically-induced comas and on ventilators many times. But Castro worried. His brother had gone through something similar as a result of drug and substance use, and Castro felt his brother was never the same after that. Since visitors are not allowed in hospitals during this coronavirus pandemic, Castro had to endure the news alone.
Helping the body fight the coronavirus
About four days later, Castro woke from his coma.
“Days had passed and I had no idea of anything — I didn’t even know the basics like who I was or where I was at.”
With his care team dressed head-to-toe in personal protective equipment (PPE), Castro recognized his care givers only by their eyes and voices.
“The hardest thing was my pride,” he said. “I’m so used to helping everyone out that I never thought I’d be in this situation. Having me being comforted and helped by UCHealth has truly been a blessing. They didn’t just help me physically, they helped me mentally, emotionally, spoke with me and some even prayed with me. I’ve never been in a facility like that, and it gave me a really warm feeling that I’ll never stop thanking them.”
That mental and emotional help was so important, he explained. He’d lost his cell phone upon arriving at the hospital, and it was days before it was found. Not being able to see his family wrenched his heart, but even when hospital employees returned his phone to him, FaceTime visits just weren’t enough.
“My son would call me every day or text me. The hardest thing was to take that call, to tell him that I had to work on myself right now. My son needs a father and someone there for him,” Castro said.
“Lots of times, I kid you not, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. But my faith and my children really motivated me to get better.”
Recovering from COVID-19
Castro will always remember the names of some of his nurses. He calls them “real heroes” who “dealt with me in my darkest times. But really, I want to thank every last person there,” he said. “They are so multi-talented, good-natured and so kind. I wish I could go there and thank every single person personally, but that’s not possible right now.”
Back at home, Castro continues to self-quarantine. Shortly after he was admitted to the hospital, his girlfriend Claudia came down with a fever and tested positive for COVID-19. It has already spread through their household; their 18-month-old daughter came down with a fever during Castro’s early symptoms but recovered in only a few days.
Claudia is now back to work. And Castro will spend the next few weeks being a stay-at-home dad. He’s starting with baby steps to get his lungs and his body healthy again.
“I’m still not 100%,” he said. “I’m still weak and tired and have multiple follow-up Virtual Visits with my doctors, but it’s OK because I’m strong enough to prove to the doctors that I can do this. Too many days passed without me seeing my kids and family.’’
On April 5, Ernesto Castro, Claudia and the kids will quietly celebrate his birthday. And simply being alive will be the greatest gift he ever could have received.