FORT DRUM, New York – Sitting comfortably at home, surrounded by his wife and three daughters, one might find it hard to believe that just a couple of weeks prior, retired U.S. Army Sgt. Luis Luce was hospitalized, undergoing respiratory therapy on a ventilator while his body struggled to get enough oxygen as he fought off the Novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, virus.
Before contracting COVID-19, Luis didn’t think he would add to the already staggering number of positive cases in New York State.
“A week before I was hospitalized, my wife and I picked up our daughter in Jersey City, (New Jersey), and the same day we came back,” Luis said. “I let my employer know I just picked up my daughter from the city, so my employer said to work at home from now on and I’ll let you know when you can come back.”
Luis’s trip to the city occurred shortly before that part of the state experienced a large influx in positive cases of COVID-19. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of concern for people coming back to the North Country from that area.
Soon after returning, Luis and his family noticed his minor cough, which he had before traveling downstate, was worsening as he began experiencing additional symptoms.
“We kept noticing that (his cough) was getting progressively worse, and then he started getting chills a few days later and night sweats,” said Lyn Ann Luce, Luis’s daughter. “We decided to call (public health), and he qualified to be tested. So we went to Guthrie.”
Because of his symptoms, the healthcare team at the Guthrie Ambulatory Healthcare Clinic on Fort Drum not only tested Luis for the virus but also administered a chest x-ray to determine what was causing his low oxygen saturation rate.
After the x-ray, “I was advised to stay in my car, then they called and asked if someone could drive me home,” Luis said. “‘Why, what’s happening?’ I asked. They said it was because I was having a problem with my oxygen levels. They found out I had some type of pneumonia.”
Even before his COVID-19 test result came back, Luis was advised by the Guthrie team to admit himself into inpatient care at the Samaritan Medical Center in downtown Watertown, New York, just blocks away from his home. Because of COVID-19 mitigation procedures, Luis had to be dropped off as his family wasn’t permitted to join him when he checked himself into the hospital.
“He was the first COVID-19 case admitted in Samaritan,” said Analyn Luce, Luis’s wife. “It’s hard; we’re so close to the hospital, but we weren’t even able to visit.”
However, thanks to technology, Luis was able to video chat with his family each day he was in the hospital. That is until Samaritan medical staff determined he needed to be placed on a ventilator to help increase his oxygen levels after they dropped below an acceptable level.
“He seemed fine every night,” Lyn Ann said. “The night before (he was intubated), we were (video chatting), and the next night the doctor called us and said they had to keep increasing our dad’s oxygen and they had to switch to respiratory therapy. It happened so fast; we didn’t even really get to talk to him, and from then on, he was intubated and sedated.”
Even under sedation, Luis was overcome with emotions and worry about his situation and, at times, wasn’t sure he would come out of the ordeal okay.
“There were some days I wanted to cry, so I prayed, and from there, God assured me I was going to be okay,” Luis said. “It’s not really a good experience, but you have to deal with it.”
For the Luce family, not being by Luis’s side during such a stressful time was difficult as they tried to remain positive throughout the ordeal. Luckily, the family didn’t have to cope alone. They had the support of their community, church and the medical staff from both Fort Drum and Samaritan, who were invested in Luis’s recovery.
Down in the city, “I have a lot of friends who, even trying to get ahold of the status of their relatives, is really hard,” Lyn Ann said. “So, the fact that Guthrie, public health, the hospital, everyone was working together and checking on our family every day (was great). They were on it around the clock.”
The support the family received from friends, their church and the community was immense. Concerned supporters delivered food and other necessities to their doorstep as the family wasn’t able to leave their home while Luis was in the hospital.
“We had more than we expected,” Analyn said. “Our friends were so supportive. They would ask us if we needed anything and they would drop it off. We got so much support, prayers and positive messages.”
Additionally, the family relied on their faith to help get them through as Luis struggled to overcome the virus. They continually thanked God for the assistance they received throughout.
“Thank God for all those compassionate people who took care of him while he was (in the ICU) because we couldn’t be there,” Analyn said. “We thank God for all the support – the overwhelming support.”
Fortunately, Luis would eventually begin to show signs of improvement after about 10 days of respiratory therapy and was able to come off the ventilator.
When I came to, “I was running out of breath because the tubing was still down there,” Luis said. “I felt like I was suffocating. The nurse checked on me and cleared out all the liquid. They neutralized everything and suddenly I could breathe again.”
“They said ‘you’re getting well now; is it okay to take out your tubbing?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ It’s a weird experience (having the tube removed). I don’t want to go back there.”
Shortly after, Luis was discharged from the hospital and placed under an additional 14-day quarantine at home to make sure he experienced no further symptoms and he had successfully fought off the virus.
“It was the happiest moment of our lives,” Analyn said. “I’m so happy to see him back home.”
Now comfortably at home, Luis is recovering well. He recently completed his in-home physical therapy to help him recover from his time being sedated and on the ventilator. He’s even eating well, asking for his wife to cook his favorite foods, according to Lyn Ann.
“We’re still going to be cautious,” Luis said. “This is the first time we’ve ever experienced this type of pandemic. Sometimes you ask God, why has this happened to me? What did I do wrong? But this gave me another chance to live.”
Luis and his family want to stress the importance of doing what one can to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community while not dwelling on the things you can’t control.
“Be careful and do the things we need to do like social distancing, washing your hands, using a mask and staying home,” said Analyn. “At the end of the day, there are going to be things we can’t control. We just have to do the things we can.”
The Luce family hopes their experience can help others who may be struggling with a similar situation, and for them to understand maintaining their resiliency during an indescribably trying time is key to making it through.
“I think for family members going through this, understand it’s a mental game,” Lyn Ann explained. “This virus wants you to be ill and stagnant, but you have to keep fighting, not only physically, but mentally, spiritually and emotionally as well. At the end of the day, you have to make the choice, whether you’re the patient or the family member, to fight.”
“Hopefully, his story inspires others to hang in there,” Lyn Ann added. “It’s way more than just a physical ailment. It’s such a life-transforming thing to experience. Whether you’re affected by it directly or indirectly, there are so many lessons you can learn from it.”