Near death, nurse says she refused ventilator in bid to fight COVID with her own breath

‘Just breathe’

Jo Ann Cavazos (Courtesy Photo)

Dub her the mother of all survivors.

Jo Ann Cavazos of San Benito has recently been cleared to go back to work as a licensed vocational nurse after a harrowing experience with COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, removing the single mother from her children for four weeks at one point when she was hospitalized due to the virus.

It’s a tale she often tells about the time she “shouldn’t be here today.”

Her strength and faith, however, proved all she needed to overcome.

Working as an LVN for 18 years, she’s currently employed at South Texas Rehabilitation Hospital in Brownsville, and is a student at Baptist Health System School of Health Professions of San Antonio.

Due to the nature of her work, Cavazos found herself on the front lines of the pandemic last year. Her workplace is known for rehabilitating patients who have suffered from disabling injuries or diseases such as strokes, brain and spinal cord injuries, but as things escalated and the hospital began seeing more infected patients, they created a COVID unit to combat the virus.

The unit mostly consisted of the same nurses in order for them to avoid further contact and spread of COVID-19.

Cavazos was quick to learn that the virus had unusual characteristics where treatment had to become specific to how the patients were uniquely affected.

“We had a COVID patient who had no symptoms whatsoever and tested positive,” Cavazos said. “Then we have the ones like me, who almost died, and you just never know.

“The virus is so, so smart because it picks and chooses who it wants and it affects them in different ways, you just don’t know what to expect.”

Cavazos isn’t completely sure how she contracted the virus in 2020. She followed the protocols required when working in a COVID unit, such as constant showering before and after work and changing clothes before entering her home.

As a single mother of two children, Cavazos was the one who would go out to run errands or buy groceries while her mother, Gracie Cavazos, would look after her kids.

Between the constant exposure to the virus at work and going out for necessities, Cavazos knew it was only a matter of time.

Her nerves had steeled from years of nursing and constant exposure to superbugs, viruses and infections, so for her, following her routine of cleaning herself thoroughly was enough to feel safe.

“We kind of get this mentality of ‘we are invincible’ or ‘that’s not going to happen to us,’” Cavazos said. “I’m not going to lie, I thought the same thing, like: ‘I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I’ll be OK.’ But somehow, some way, I still got it.”

Cavazos woke up the Monday morning of Thanksgiving week around 4:30 a.m. to use the bathroom and when she washed her hands with her favorite soap, she was unable to smell its scent nor was she able to taste the banana she ate afterward.

She quickly used a spare home test kit, scheduled it for pick up from FedEx, called her physician, Dr. Ahmad Karkoutly, and began to self-quarantine because she showed no other symptoms besides her lack of taste and smell.

By Wednesday the same week, Cavazos began to develop small bruises on her legs so her doctor recommended a visit to the ER at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Brownsville, for blood work, medication and X-rays of her lungs, which showed some spotting. Still nothing too concerning.

Everything seemed fine until Sunday morning when Cavazos woke up unable to breathe and noticed her oxygen levels were at 74 using a pulse oximeter.

When she got out of bed and into her restroom, her oxygen levels had dropped into the 60s. It was then that she knew she was in trouble, so she calmed herself and began to focus.

She was able to get a hold of her mother and brother, Rolando, who lives next door and managed to call an ambulance, but asked for them to approach without any sirens or lights so as to not scare her kids, Jordyn and Joe.

It had only been five days since her last visit to the ER but the new X-rays showed that her left lung had completely collapsed.

Even after being placed in a COVID unit and given new medication with rounds of plasma, Cavazos felt her health quickly deteriorating over the next few days.

On Friday, Cavazos called her attorney as she began to prepare for the worst.

“I wanted to be sure my kids were going to be taken care of,” Cavazos said. “She was going to put my brother down as their legal guardian.”

Once she had set her affairs in order, Cavazos found peace of mind in knowing that she would see her dad again, former Cameron County Precinct 3 Constable Jose “Joe” Cavazos Jr., who died in 2014.

It was then that Dr. Karkoutly sent her a text message asking how she was doing.

After responding with a “not well,” she was rushed into the intensive care unit within the hour as she began to lose consciousness and was put on a machine that would administer high flow oxygen.

Jo Ann Cavazos was in the ICU for a week in the fall of 2020. Months later, she is still working to get back to 100%. (Courtesy Photo)

Doctors urged her to be put on a ventilator but Cavazos would refuse, saying that she would sign a do-not-resuscitate order if need be, because she knew of the risks that would come from a ventilator aiding her lungs to expand which she said would sometimes result in death for some patients.

“These are colleagues, these are friends of mine, these are doctors that I’ve known for years telling me, ‘You need a vent,’ and I’m being stubborn,” Cavazos recalled. “I need to put the work in … I need to do this on my own.

“I need to be able to make my lungs work again and I can’t have a machine do that for me.”

At this point, a deep breath felt like shards of glass ripping her open from the inside out, and she had lost 22 pounds within 11 days while her eyes sunk and her skin paled.

Her colleagues were trying to arrange a way for her kids to come see her as they believed she would not make it given her condition, a fact she learned after her recovery.

For the next week, Cavazos found herself on 88 liters of high flow oxygen, which is the highest amount without being placed on a machine, while she continued to do her school work to keep herself distracted and from failing the nursing program.

Thoughts of having Christmas with her kids, her sense of responsibility toward raising them and conversations with God also kept her preoccupied and gave her the strength needed to fight for her life.

“I remember thinking, ‘OK, God, you finally got me in the RN program, you can’t take me now,’” Cavazos laughed. “‘I know this is not the way you had it going down, no, this isn’t the way it’s going to happen.’

“‘We’re going to change some things.’”

She believes her ordeal was a way of God telling her to take a break and to place trust in others.

Cavazos, with her sense of duty as a mother, a nurse and a student, had always been the caretaker and hardly accepted help from anyone else even as she neared death, being taught at a young age that if she wanted something she would have to work for it.

As she watched the medical staff in the ICU scramble to save not only her life but the many patients with her, she felt a sense of responsibility to not let their work be in vain.

After a week in ICU, Cavazos was transferred to Solara Specialty Hospitals where she began her therapy as she struggled to stand and was discharged on Dec. 23, making her kids very happy to have their mother for Christmas.

Cavazos, who is still not 100%, takes medication regularly as the virus has done its damage on her heart and lungs as well as her mental health.

On her first day back at work, she was sent home due to her anxiety causing a panic attack as she had flashbacks of her near-death experience.

Her kids, who are only 6 and 4, are traumatized by the events as well. Simply hearing the word doctor causes them to fear for their mother’s life.

Cavazos decided to get a tattoo of lungs with the words “just breathe” under them, the mantra she used during her experience, to memorialize her ordeal. One lung is replaced by three blue flowers, two of them representing her brothers, Rolando and Roel, and the biggest flower her late father, Joe, with a humming bird feeding off of it which represents her mother, Gracie.

Jo Ann Cavazos’ tattoo of lungs with the words “just breathe” under them memorialize her COVID-19 ordeal. (Courtesy Photo)

She’s glad she can continue her studies as a student and her work as a nurse but most of all, to be a mother to her daughter and son, Jordyn and Joe.

Ever gracious, Cavazos also credited the team at Bench Pulmonary Center in Brownville for all the work they do and everyone who continues to fight the virus to this day.

Editor’s note: This story was changed to correct the location of the hospital Valley Baptist Medical Center as being in Brownsville.