After 53 days in the hospital, Brian Morales was given a “Clap Off” by staff at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills-Northwell Health last Monday as he was discharged and went back to his Elmhurst home.
“A lot of goosebumps and a lot of tears,” said Rosemarie Robinson, the hospital’s ICU assistant director of nursing. “Happy tears for a change.”
The nurses gave him a chocolate cake for the road. The staff knew he liked chocolate and Robinson would give him Hershey’s kisses when he was undergoing physical therapy and walked to her office at the end of the hall.
“It’s all about figuring out what it is that makes your patient tick and being able to provide care to that level,” said Merav deGuzman, manager of Patient and Family Centered Care at the hospital. “If we don’t do that, I don’t think we would be successful.”
Morales’ story is a positive one as the borough has seen so many tragedies.
“He was one of the lucky ones who got better,” said Syed Iqbal, attending physician at the hospital.
The 28-year-old went to the hospital after dealing with a bad cough and sore throat for nearly two weeks. Morales also had shortness of breath when he was trying to sleep, though he thought he just had the flu.
“I never imagined that I had the virus,” he said.
Morales had low blood pressure and a high fever. He was on a ventilator for 23 days. Because of the high number of cases, he spent three weeks at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island before being transferred back to Forest Hills.
Gradually he was taken off the ventilator and put on a respirator. The last two weeks of his stay was dedicated to physical therapy because he couldn’t walk after being in bed so long.
“After two months being in bed, it’s very difficult for you to be able to walk and also I wasn’t able to write at all because your hands are weak,” he said. “Your whole body is weak.”
Morales, who had been a bartender at a restaurant in Manhattan, was concerned about providing for his family. He lives with his grandparents, uncle, aunt, mother and younger sister.
“My mood was always melancholic,” he said. “I was always crying because your family wasn’t able to see you. You’re alone in the hospital. You feel lonely and the fact that you’re fighting for your life, giving your best to survive and all you want to see is your family.”
In speech therapy, he would have to point at boards to describe his mood.
“He was so stressed out about his own family,” deGuzman said.
And no visitors were being allowed in the hospital.
“It’s brutal on both ends,” Robinson said. “For the family only being able to call and only seeing their loved ones for the videochat. And then some folks are older so they don’t have the electronic knowledge or equipment to do that. And then the poor patient in the bed.”
Morales added, “Of course it’s scary knowing you’re not able to walk and that you’re not able to move. You need to depend on someone else to help you.”
The nursing staff was concerned that his stress level was getting in the way of his ability to recuperate.
“They told him, ‘You focus on your health and we’ll focus on your family,’” deGuzman said.
She got in touch with Commonpoint Queens and the organization delivered food to the family.
“I was very happy,” Morales said. “I was really blessed because I got the support from the hospital.”
Robinson said taking care of him was an entire team effort physically, emotionally and medically.
“Without them I don’t know where I would be,” Morales said.
DeGuzman added, “They were really emotionally invested in him because they wanted to see him go home.”
He still needed speech and swallow rehab after being taken off the ventilator.
“His will to participate in rehab and to get through all of it is amazing,” Iqbal said. “For us it’s just great to show it is helping people with this terrible disease.”
Robinson, who has been a nurse for nearly 36 years, said the virus came on fast.
“I’ve never experienced anything quite like this,” she said.
The staff has become a surrogate family for patients. Robinson noted some workers hold a patient’s hand.
“This might be the last human contact these people have,” she said. “The nurses took this to heart. They understood the gravity of what could happen.”
DeGuzman added, “Saying that they’re heroes is just an understatement because they did more than just treat patients. They really went the extra mile to try to make up for the fact that they didn’t have their loved ones with them.”
Now Morales is recovering at home, still working on building his strength.
“There’s no better feeling than giving a mother her son back,” deGuzman said.
And the recovering Morales has a new outlook on life.
“I feel that I’m living my second life, second opportunity so I have to make the best out of it and enjoy life every single second,” he said.