COVID-19 takes a different toll on all who experience it. For 50-year-old Claudio Ruiz Cruz, it meant 90 days in the hospital and care from approximately 1,400 caregivers.
Cruz says he started feeling ill while at work at a meatpacking plant. He remembers hearing rumors of others at work feeling sick. Then, he began feeling symptoms, too.
“I started feeling very tired. My feet hurt and once the work week was over, I went to be tested for COVID. My test came out positive and then I started having shortness of breath and my oxygen was dropping,” Cruz says.
When he got to the hospital on April 25, Cruz’s oxygen level was at 43 percent. Normal oxygen levels are between 90 and 100 percent. Within two hours of arriving, Cruz was in the intensive care unit at UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s in Sioux City, Iowa.
“I spent a week in intensive care. Once I was stabilized, I was transferred to a different hospital unit. But then I crashed and was intubated. After that, I didn’t remember anything for about the next five weeks,” Cruz says.
During that time, doctors performed a tracheostomy, which is when a hole is placed in the throat with a tube to allow more oxygen to enter. Often, these are placed when health problems require long-term use of a ventilator to help breathing.
For most of the summer, Cruz spent time between two different health care facilities. Then, on July 7, his 50th birthday, Cruz had surgery to remove a troublesome appendix and gallbladder.
“COVID isn’t just a respiratory illness, it’s a systemic illness,” says Lacy Friis, ICU Nurse. “It can have catastrophic effects on multiple organ systems. It’s likely Claudio wouldn’t have had to have that surgery if he had not just been through a huge illness. The many continuous IV drip medications used to keep him alive minute-by-minute could wreak havoc on the rest of our systems. When a person cannot adequately absorb enough oxygen into their blood to be carried to our tissues, all organs go without what they need and can be negatively impacted.”
“I was very glad for all the nurses. During all of this, I would cry, and they cried with me,” Cruz says.
Beside the nurses, one of the health care workers Cruz remembers most from his time in the hospital is CNA and certified translator Alejandra Herrera Landeros.
“In the beginning of this whole pandemic, there were a lot of Spanish-speaking patients in the COVID unit, and I think they felt more reassured and less scared when there was someone they could understand. I remember Claudio being a sweet man. He always had a smile on his face when we would enter the room. I am proud that I could help someone who suffered so long,” Herrera Landeros says.
Finally, in mid-July, Cruz was strong enough to start acute rehabilitation while continuing to be at the hospital.
“The rehab staff was really very good. They’d come into my room and take me for walks. They were always there to help me out,” Cruz says.
Each day, Cruz would work with a therapist for three hours to relearn how to use and strengthen all the muscles that were weakened during his extended hospital stay.
“Claudio’s daily activities were geared toward increasing activity levels and independence,” says Mindy Spenner, manager of rehabilitation services. “Each day, patients are working with nursing and therapy staff to get dressed, up for meals – sometimes going to the dining room – working with therapies in their room and in the therapy gyms.”
After a week of extensive rehabilitation work, Cruz was finally released home to his family. Early on when Cruz started to show COVID-19 symptoms, he isolated himself from the rest of his family to keep them safe and healthy. Fortunately, none of them contracted the virus.
“They are very happy and excited for me to be home. Things are finally starting to get back to normal for my family,” Cruz says.
For the months of August, September and most of October, Cruz stayed home and worked with home care services to continue his recovery. He finally went back to work on October 26. He admitted he was excited, but nervous in the days leading up to his return.
“Hearing Claudio was able to go home and, on top of that, have a functioning, meaningful quality of life returning to work, etc. made me instantly cry. ICU nurses know a completely different level of stress and heartache in this pandemic. Patients, like Claudio, renew our spirits. In a dark time for ICU nurses, Claudio’s success reminds us that it isn’t all for nothing. Thank you, Claudio, for keeping me going, so I can show up and save others,” Friis says.
When asked what advice Cruz would share with others about COVID-19, he says, “You need to be protecting yourself, wear your mask, keeping your distance. Since I was one of the first people who caught COVID, we didn’t know what we were getting into,” Cruz says.