One year later, COVID survivor returns to thank nurses who saved his life

WESLACO — One year after hospital staff wheeled him into the parking lot to the cheers of his family and friends, Jaime Perales returned to Knapp Medical Center to give a proper thanks to the people who saved his life.

Perales returned to the Mid-Valley hospital on Tuesday to share his gratitude with the nurses who spent more than a month bringing him back from the brink of death at the hands of a new pathogen just as it began to make a foothold in the Rio Grande Valley.

In February of last year, COVID-19 was still an unknown here. The Valley wouldn’t go on to report its first official case for another month, but by February 2020, the virus was already coursing through Perales’ veins after he likely acquired it during a trip to Louisiana.

At first, Perales and his family thought he was battling a cold, or perhaps the flu. But when his temperature continued to climb and the body aches continued to worsen, Perales knew something was seriously wrong.

By the time he came to Knapp, he had already been battling the virus’ symptoms for nearly two weeks.

He was admitted into the care of a staff that knew almost as little about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 as Perales did himself.

“He was very ill,” said Gracie Villalpando, one of the registered nurses who cared for Perales during his 40-day hospitalization.

“We were barely finding out about the disease, so we had to go with the best treatments that we had available (while) guarding ourselves with our isolation gear. … Everything was in the new stages,” she said.

Perales’ condition continued to worsen. It wasn’t long before doctors were forced to sedate and intubate him to relieve the stress his lungs were under as the virus filled them.

In the early days of the pandemic and its myriad unknowns, health officials exercised maximum caution with patients, hospital staff and family. As a result, none of Perales’ family were allowed to visit him.

Communication with their beloved brother, son and friend was limited to leaving voicemails for the nurses to play for Perales while he was unconscious. Meanwhile his sister, Priscilla, acted as the sole go-between for the family.

Priscilla took all the phone calls, relayed all the medical information about her brother to the rest of his loved ones.

“She couldn’t even sleep because every time the phone rang, she thought it was bad news,” said Alicia Garza, Jaime and Priscilla’s mother.

At one point, Priscilla called Jaime’s best friend, Israel Gonzalez, in tears. An X-ray of Jaime’s lungs showed nothing but an expanse of white — a sign that they were filled with fluid and unable to handle the respiration process whereby the body’s blood exchanges carbon dioxide for life-giving oxygen.

“I was tearing up and crying,” Gonzalez said of that conversation.

Things appeared to be getting worse.

On April 5, her birthday, Jaime’s mom got a call no mother wants to get. Doctors were estimating his survival at just 10%.

He’d already been in the ICU for weeks. Doctors had placed him on his stomach — known as the prone position — to help further reduce the strain on his beleaguered lungs.

But by then, doctors all over the country had begun trying a new experimental treatment — transfusing plasma from COVID-19 survivors into patients who were critically ill.

The hope was that the antibodies developed in the immune systems of those who had fought and beat the disease would help trigger a similar beneficial response in those who were not responding to the only other treatments known at the time — oxygen therapy and ventilation.

“At a very, very crucial time I received the plasma. And when I received that plasma, it just helped me, little by little, recover. By the time I knew it, I was already being exported out of the ICU on my way to the recovery,” Perales said, adding that had doctors waited just one day longer to administer the plasma, the outcome may have been much different.

His mother marveled at how quickly his prognosis turned around after receiving the plasma.

“As soon as he got the plasma, it was like day and night. It took him less than six hours and he was already completely conscious,” Garza said.

Soon, Villalpando was helping Perales to walk, to regain the strength he would need in order to be discharged.

For Villalpando and for Perales, facing an unknown disease together became a matter of faith.

“We were a little scared, you know, at that time. We went forward with our faith and courage and kept going,” Villalpando said.

“It’s just our faith that pushes us to do well, a commitment to nursing and to our patients. We still have to move forward and we have to continue to get them better and to send them eventually home,” she added a moment later.

While the pair worked inside the hospital to advance Perales’ recovery, his family was being lifted up in support from the local community, who reached out in droves to offer prayers and words of encouragement.

Garza said her son’s walk through faith has continued in the year since he was released from the hospital.

“Let me tell you that I think he was reborn because his lifestyle changed completely. He’s a lot closer to God,” Garza said.

“He’s very emotional all the time, but I guess because of what he went through.”

“I went through a long journey, a long battle, but I am very, very grateful for the medical staff here at Knapp that helped me 24/7,” Perales said.

“My life has changed a lot. I’ve been closer to faith of the Lord,” he said.