- The Washington Times
Sunday, April 26, 2020

NEW ORLEANS — Ray Lubrano’s family was urged to keep him away from the hospital that would eventually put him in a coma and save his life.

Stricken with COVID-19 in late March, Mr. Lubrano, 69, developed a wracking cough that brought him to his knees and a feeling “like glass was being stuck into my entire body,” he said. His family eventually drove him to the ramp at St. Tammany Health System in Covington, Louisiana, and dropped him off.

It was the last time any family member would see Mr. Lubrano for almost three weeks. For more than a third of that time, he lay in a medically induced coma and was hooked up to a ventilator while medical professionals fought to keep him alive with the coronavirus saturating 92% of his lungs.

His fiancee, Gail Martello Evans, had a particularly grim conversation with the doctors on March 31 while she was outside another medical clinic waiting to take her own coronavirus test.

“That was the most frightening day. That was the day the doctors called and for the first time it sounded like Ray wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “I said, ‘There’s still hope, right?’ and they said, ‘Well, there’s always hope,’ but that was the best they could do.”

St. Tammany Parish has been on the fringe of a hot spot since COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, hit the U.S. this year. Just across Lake Pontchartrain, the virus has ravaged the New Orleans population and pockets of an adjoining parish. Those two areas account for 45% of the 1,540 Louisiana deaths attributed to COVID-19 in less than two months.

As of Sunday, the parish reported 1,162 confirmed cases and 94 deaths attributed to COVID-19, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. That fatality rate is higher than in 16 states , although it continues to trail the tallies being recorded on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.

Mr. Lubrano, who is retired, entered a hospital that modified its specialty wards on March 10. COVID-19 patients are kept in isolation and negative pressure, the same types of treatment for Ebola or Lassa fever.

He became one of the first people in the parish to survive after ventilation. The invasive and expensive process gives patients only a 50/50 chance of survival.

Despite early fears that COVID-19 cases would overwhelm hospitals and leave them with insufficient equipment to cope with the epidemic, such doomsday scenarios never materialized. Nevertheless, the contagious and novel nature of the virus means hospital space is at a premium and care has become a complicated affair.

Ms. Evans said the crew members who treated Mr. Lubrano were “armored,” cloaked in protective equipment and three layers of gloves. The elaborate gear could take up to an hour to strap on and remove, and medical personnel have to repeat the process for each patient they treat.

Consequently, the staff members are unable to answer calls as quickly as desired. Once they are armored and within a specific patient’s zone, they try to spend as much time as possible with that patient.

Mr. Lubrano’s family described the hospital staff’s extraordinary efforts. They repeatedly arranged video talks with Mr. Lubrano before and after his ventilation, and a team led often by Dr. Jessica Gonzalez took calls from Ms. Evans, the family’s point person, at all hours.

The family now talks about Dr. Gonzalez and the nurses who treated Mr. Lubrano in tones like those used to describe Audie Murphy or Babe Ruth: larger-than-life heroes seemingly capable of performing miracles.

“I’ve never met such a wonderful group of people like this in my life,” Ms. Evans said. “The nurses were amazing.”

For COVID-19 patients around the country, the medical profession’s lifesaving tactics have a sort of anonymous aura as they work behind masks and shields and folds of scrubs. It can be hard to put a face to a mask, so to speak, and Mr. Lubrano said he has had trouble connecting his gratitude with real people.

“I said, ‘I don’t even know your last name or if you have a smile as pretty as your eyes,’ and she said, ‘I’m going to have to find me a picture,’” Mr. Lubrano recalled about one of his nurses.

The next day, the nurse had a laminated small black-and-white portrait pinned at her waist, a personalized identification that has since been adopted by much of the staff at St. Tammany Parish Hospital.

Like others who have endured COVID-19 pains and treatment, the Lubrano family was under no illusions when he had to be taken off oxygen providers and hooked up to a ventilator.

As he lay in bed, a nurse held a phone over his wan face and let Mr. Lubrano have a video chat with family members.

“He said, and we knew, that he might not wake up again and he just wanted to tell us all how much he loved us,” said his daughter, Shelley Belk, who lives in Covington with her husband and Mr. Lubrano’s triplet grandchildren.

Her brother lives in Kansas, and that left Ms. Belk holding down an increasingly beleaguered fort as the family waited for the results of his coronavirus test. On March 24, the test came back positive.

Ms. Belk brought supplies to her father’s and Ms. Evans’ house for two weeks after Ms. Evans tested positive. “The doctor had told me that if we can keep him at home that would be best,” she said.

That was what they did until March 27, when Ms. Belk and the grandchildren paid a visit. Mr. Lubrano was clearly in trouble.

“He looked awful, and when we saw him, the kids didn’t take it well,” she said. “I didn’t either.”

Once he was admitted, Mr. Lubrano was finished with human contact outside the hospital. Families of COVID-19 patients have no bedside visits, so they waited from afar.

“It felt like months,” Ms. Belk said. “The [intensive care] nurses were just amazing. They always, always took Gail’s calls, but it was hard. And then, on Palm Sunday, he woke up.”

Mr. Lubrano remained in intensive care for a few days, groggy and unable to fend for himself in any way. At one point, he believed Sen. Bernard Sanders had come to visit.

“They kept telling me I was their star patient, but I couldn’t get out of bed,” he said. “Eventually, they threatened to ‘red belt’ me, which I guess is some kind of restraint, because they were worried I was going to have come out of the coma and off the ventilator and then wind up falling and hitting my head or something.”

On a sun-splashed April 14, two days after Easter, a masked Mr. Lubrano was wheeled, Lazarus-like, outside. He went home to greet his black Labrador retriever, Harmony. Today, he and Ms. Evans sit on the porch, masked liked bank robbers and smiling like children on Christmas morning.

“I’m very thankful, very thankful,” Mr. Lubrano said. “I was in there behind double-glass enclosures. I was under surveillance the whole time, and now … now I’m not, and I’m alive.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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