Gabe Pastores is a different kind of strong now.
Gabe was a muscular, burly guy known for hauling concrete blocks, working hard, and playing with his grandkids. “I was a busy body,” he says. “I miss that.” A fit 56-year-old with no underlying health conditions, Gabe contracted COVID in November.
Six months later, he’s still recovering.
“It was a monster that came out of nowhere,” Gabe says. “I’m still frightened for my life. I don’t know where it’s going with this lung damage. That’s what this disease did to me: It took my lungs.”
Gabe spent 9 weeks in ICU on a ventilator . . . including 4 weeks on an ECMO heart/lung bypass machine, because his lungs were too full of COVID pneumonia – radiologists call it “ground glass” – to get oxygen into his body. (Patients who need an ECMO machine usually need it for only a few hours or days.) He was on slow-drip dialysis to save his kidneys. After ICU, he spent 5+ weeks in a rehabilitation center. Now, Gabe gets nursing care, physical therapy and occupational therapy at home. He’s on oxygen all the time.
“This is going to be the hardest part: getting better,” Gabe says.
Gabe is strong in spirit and determination. He is weak in his lungs, his muscles, his stamina. His therapy goals? To get up and walk. To sit up straight. “I can get in and out of the house now,” he says. “I get to sit outside finally.” His wife Cindi nods: “You’ve made a ton of improvement.”
Gabe used to make breakfast every morning. Now it’s a victory to fry a single egg. “I just really miss cooking. I miss doing the yard work, I really do. I miss walking my dog,” Gabe tears up. “I miss it a lot.”
Gabe wants people to understand that “this sickness just comes in. Someone at work had it, and I said ‘hi’ to the guy from six feet away and I got it,” Gabe says. “I was so careful at work, wearing a mask and always washing my hands. I was healthy, and it almost did me in.”
Gabe was planning to tell his boss that he wanted to stop work for two weeks when COVID cases were spiking last fall “because I was jeopardizing my wife, my dad and my daughter. I was going to tell him, whether you fire me or not, I’m going to take some time off until this calms down, but I was too late.”
The whole family got COVID: Gabe’s 96-year-old father, their daughter, and Cindi – who has multiple sclerosis that puts her at high risk of severe illness.
“It’s so hard when you hear people say, ‘This disease isn’t that bad, it’s just like the flu’ and for people to just nonchalantly be so careless with other people’s lives when they don’t understand how devastating this can be,” Cindi says.
“I know a lot of people who totally changed their tune about wearing masks after hearing Gabe’s story. They had no idea what a person could go through,” she adds. “Do people really want to risk their own lungs and their heart because they don’t want to wear a mask?”
Gabe and Cindi will get vaccinated when they can. Gabe must wait until his system is clear of drugs used for his COVID treatment; Cindi must balance vaccination with her MS care, since side effects might make her MS flare up.
“If Gabe hadn’t gotten sick, I’d probably be on the fence about getting vaccinated,” Cindi says. “I don’t like the idea of our country saying, ‘You have to do this, or you can’t do that.’ But this disease affects us all. I’m not on the fence anymore. I almost lost him. It’s just not worth it.”
For now, Gabe’s strong spirit keeps him going. “I will press on. I will drive again. I will work in the yard again. I will cook again. I will walk my dog again,” he vows.
“Ain’t nothing going to keep me down.”
Learn more: COVID vaccination