Throughout their battle with the coronavirus, John and Colette Della Guardia tried not to think the worst. Today, they're thinking back.
One year since they left on a cruise as the world locked down around them, sports seasons suddenly paused, and we got our first lessons on pandemic-related vocabulary, John feels lucky to be alive and back home after doctors initially expected slim chances.
When John was on a ventilator because his oxygen levels "tanked" last year, doctors estimated about 3% odds of survival. But he persevered, crediting the support and prayers of his family and community, along with the medical staff at Riddle Hospital in Media.
He came off the ventilator after 51 days, eventually able to leave Riddle for Kindred Hospital to work on getting his strength back. Family and doctors lined the halls cheering for John as he was wheeled out, giving them a thumbs up. The gravity of the situation - doctors telling his children to say goodbye, his wife Colette trying to get a priest to administer last rites - hadn't all sunk in yet.
"After I learned how serious it was, I think I just felt lucky to be here, to still be around. And I’m trying to really figure out why," John told NBC10 this week.
"I tell folks that I think, ‘well God wasn’t ready for me,’ either God wasn’t ready for me or Hell was overcrowded. One or the other. … I told one of my doctors that and she said, 'well I don’t think it was that Hell was overcrowded, they usually can make room for one more.'"
Coronavirus survivor stories
Throughout 2020, NBC10 covered the stories of people who were infected with the coronavirus and lived to talk about it.
Many coronavirus survivors experience lingering complications in the heart or lungs - but John hasn't. The main lasting issue for him has been calcium deposits - referred to as ossification - in his hips from the long stint in bed.
But overall, he's recovered better than expected. Doctors he's checked in with during his recovery period have been surprised to see him walking into their office - at first with a walker, now with a cane - instead of being wheeled in.
"I've fully regained... my strength back, as much as it's going to come back," Della Guardia said.
John and Colette, along with about 40 others from their Delaware County over-55 community, left the NYC area March 8, 2020 on a cruise ship bound for the Caribbean. COVID-19 was a concern, but the Della Guardias had heard it was more prevalent on the West Coast. They didn't know how much was going to change in the world, or the extent of damage the virus could do.
"Some people just barely feel like they have a cold, some people like myself get hit hard. I didn’t know that, I didn’t know how hard some people were getting hit with it," John said.
As the 1-week trip continued, John began to feel ill and lost his appetite. Colette noticed the crew changing procedures in the cafeteria, adding more barriers, removing self-serve stations, and singing a song about the importance of handwashing.
"Nobody really knew anything until we got home and saw how fast it had spread," Colette said.
John continued feeling exhausted in the days afterward and the couple got COVID tests - doctor-recommended, a requirement at the time. The health care worker who tested them asked if he was short of breath, which he wasn't. But he had no sense of smell or taste - now considered a possible early sign of the coronavirus infection.
Days later, John had even less energy. They couldn't wait for test results before Colette took John to the ER.
A nurse greeted the couple at the hospital.
“She took him by the arm, brought him inside, and told me to leave. So, I would say all the way home, tears were running down my face,” Colette said.
She was coming down with a case too, breathing heavily, coughing often and dealing with a "wicked headache."
Soon, Colette was two rooms down from John in the hospital. She'd call him a few times a day to talk as they received treatment. Nurses and doctors would talk to John on a loud speaker and tell him to take deep breaths.
She remembers John calling to say he was being transferred to intensive care. “And I said well, if it’s going to help you breathe, you do what they tell you, you do what you have to do to get better,” Colette said.
This is where John's memory starts to get fuzzy. The last thing he remembers before the ventilator is laying down as staff pushed him through a doorway.
Colette was receiving oxygen and in the ICU, but did not go onto a ventilator.
At one point, doctors asked their children to come in two-by-two and say goodbye to an unconscious John. They held it together until his daughter Julie said she saw a tear fall down John's face - and she "lost it."
“And then the nurses came in and escorted them out of the room," John said, recounting what he learned about this blank spot in his memory. "I said well, you know, I don’t remember that, and ... sorry you had to go through that.”
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Colette was pulling for her husband the whole way. When doctors tried to talk about her own condition, she would ask them how John was doing. And she was also worried about her children.
"They can’t lose both their parents at the same time," she'd tell the doctors and nurses.
And Colette would think about how the kids value John's life advice for any problem they dealt with.
"I said 'if anybody has to make it, it’s got to be him.' And [the doctors] would just pat me on the head and say 'we’re going to do the best we can with both of you.'"
John started improving after doctors started putting him in a prone position. Eventually, he improved enough to be taken off anesthetic and the ventilator, and underwent a tracheotomy to increase his airflow.
But he was foggy for a week. There were plans to do an MRI if see if there was brain damage. Before the procedure was scheduled, a nurse called John's name and he responded, though he can't recall that. He would wiggle his toes when asked. The MRI results were good.
John's first clear post-ventilator memory is hearing his daughter Terry's voice coming from a phone a nurse was holding.
"I responded to her - I remember knowing who it was and calling her name. And then after that, it just improved quickly," John said.
After some setbacks including an infection, it came time for the transfer - and the hospital staff and family were they to see John out. He remembers turning the corner and seeing a hallway lined with applauding staff.
Relatives cheered for him outside as he was placed in the ambulance for the transfer to Kindred.
"I still didn’t have a handle on how serious it was, and how touch and go it was for awhile," John said. "So I thought what the hell are all you guys doing here? Why aren’t you at work? You guys should be at work!”
He gave a thumbs up.
Colette was told she'd need oxygen at home for a month after her release from the hospital. But in that month, while John was still fighting, she was exercising and walking around their community.
Both are grateful to the staff at Riddle. Colette knows it went differently for others - hearing that the day she left, as the ICU was packed, five people passed away.
So many people have greeted John in the past months and told him "we were praying hard for you.”
“Well I guess you guys did, because I pulled through,” John likes to say.
Despite the fears and the moments where they thought the worse, Colette got through by staying positive.
"Everything’s going to be OK, just give it time. And that’s how I approached it all the time," Colette said. "Yeah, there were times that I started crying, things were two steps forward and one step backwards, and that always kind of threatened my positivity. But I just tried to stay as positive as possible."
She also credits her faith.
"The Dear Lord listened to my prayers," Colette said. "He had a little bit of charity and compassion in his heart to give me what I wanted, rather than what he might have wanted."
And whenever she drives by the hospital where the Della Guardias beat COVID, she gives a thumbs up.