COVID-19 almost killed him; on Saturday, New Jersey man ran 20 miles between hospitals that saved him
Watch: 1 year after near-death from COVID, Manalapan man runs 20 miles
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On April 10, 2020, Paulo Santos staggered up the driveway of his Manalapan, New Jersey, home, leaning heavily on a walker. The distance was only a few feet. It felt like scaling Mount Everest.
“I couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds at a time without my legs collapsing from weakness,” he recalled.
Santos had just been discharged from the hospital, where a near-fatal case of COVID-19 forced him onto a ventilator for two weeks. He’d lost 45 pounds. When he took off his shirt, his wife of 11 years was stunned.
© April Dunic Paulo Santos (top center) with wife Christine Santos (left) and their children Ava (bottom center) and Paulo Jr. at Jersey Shore University Medical Center after Paulo’s 20-mile run Saturday.
“He was so gaunt,” Christine Santos said, “he had excess skin hanging.”
Desperate for a fresh start, Paulo wanted to shave his head. He couldn’t muster the strength.
“I helped him,” Christine said. “I tried not to cry doing it.”
Thus began a long road back, which included a post-COVID heart attack. On Saturday, exactly 12 months after his discharge, the 40-year-old turned the page once and for all with a remarkable feat. He ran the 20 miles from Freehold Township’s CentraState Healthcare System, where he initially checked in last March, to Neptune’s Jersey Shore University Medical Center, where he was transferred in a desperate bid to keep him alive.
© April Dunic Members of the staff at CentraState Healthcare System, Freehold, send Paulo Santos off on his 20-mile run Saturday.
He ran to raise money for the doctors and nurses who saved him, and mostly to say thank you. The feat took a little under five hours. Staff members from each hospital gathered at both the starting and finish lines, holding signs and cheering.
“It was overwhelming, to see the staff there.” Paulo said. “The whole thing was pretty wild.”
The run left him sore in the legs but stoked in spirit.
“It’s the ultimate closure to a nightmare,” Christine Santos said.
© April Dunic Paulo Santos (center, in red) is greeted by members of the staff of Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune upon his arrival after running 20 miles Saturday. Hallucinations and ‘turning gray’
Santos, the vice president of a commercial real estate company and father of two children ages 9 and 3, thinks he contracted COVID the first week of March 2020. He hosted a networking event at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, during a Seton Hall-Villanova college basketball game that was attended by 16,000 people. Then he traveled to Washington, D.C., and back by train. On the return trip, Amtrak announced it would be halting further service due to the burgeoning pandemic.
A fever set in a few days later. On March 17, Paulo began hallucinating.
“He was turning gray,” Christine Santos said.
A nurse at a dialysis clinic, Christine rushed Paulo to CentraState. Although COVID tests were taking three days to yield results, X-rays revealed double pneumonia and with his oxygen levels plummeting, doctors diagnosed him on sight.
On March 23, as the pandemic erupted in hospitals across New Jersey, Santos stopped breathing and was placed on a ventilator.
The last thing he remembers, he said, was “people screaming in the background.”
Because the hospital was closed to guests, Christine Santos was on FaceTime with Paulo when it happened.
“The next thing I knew his iPad was facing the ceiling,” she said. “I called the nurses’ station and I was like, ‘I think he dropped his iPad.’ They said, ‘No, we’re intubating him right now.’
“I slowly collapsed to the floor,” she said. How he was saved
While Santos was on life support, doctors made the crucial decision to transfer him to Jersey Shore University Medical Center, which had gained approval to use the drug Remdesivir on COVID patients. Dr. Eric Costanzo, director of critical care services at Jersey Shore, had assembled a “prone” team to deal with intubated patients. Lying prone — on the stomach, arms positioned above the shoulders — maximizes oxygen intake for struggling lungs. The problem: Over a long term, that position causes nerve damage.
The prone team consists of a respiratory therapist and five attendants to ensure patients aren’t lying in one position for too long.
“We’ve extubated 170 critically ill COVID cases,” Costanzo said. “We haven’t had negative feedback on nerve issues.”
Santos awoke from his coma on April 7, his 39th birthday. Disoriented as one might expect, he spotted balloons in the corner of his room, courtesy of his wife, and was greeted by a therapist who wished him a happy birthday.
© Paulo Santos Paulo Santos in front of CentraState Medical Center in Freehold Township, where he was first taken after coming down with COVID-19.
He tried to respond.
“Then I realized, I couldn’t talk,” he said.
Doctors suggested in-patient rehabilitation, but Paulo couldn’t bear any more time away from Christine and their kids, Ava and Paulo Jr.
“I told them, ‘Give me a walker and send me home,’” he said.
Three days later, he staggered up the driveway.No more excuses
Santos completed the New York City Marathon in 2006, but balky knees convinced him to stop running. By mid-May, feeling like he needed to supplement the rehab regimen physical therapists laid out for him, he decided to jog.
“I knew my lungs needed help,” he said. “At first, it was, can I get down the stairs? Then, can I get down the driveway, to the mailbox? Then, can I get to the end of the block?”
After a month, Paulo reached the end of the block.
“I know the science, but when the patient has the will, it enhances how the science works,” Costanzo said. “He deserves tremendous credit for putting his foot down and moving forward.”
© April Dunic An overwhlemed Paulo Santos (in red) is greeted by wife Christine Santos (left) upon his arrival at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune after running 20 miles from CentraState Healthcare in Freehold Saturday.
Nothing comes easily after a severe COVID case. In September, Santos felt “a flutter” in his heart. A year earlier he would have blown it off. Now, with his guard up, he got checked out. The verdict: heart attack caused by a blood clot — likely a post-COVID complication.
Undeterred, Santos kept running. Eventually he jogged the three miles from his home to CentraState.
“Last time I was there, it was in an ambulance,” he said. “Appreciation, fear, sadness — everything kind of came back. I thought, ‘I need to find a way to make this better and show thanks for everybody.’”
Hence the 20-mile run, performed mostly along backroads. An accompanying GoFundMe campaign has raised about $12,000 so far, more than twice the original goal.
“Every life saved is touching,” Costanzo said. “When the patient is able to give back and do something extraordinary, it’s so moving. Living through our first pandemic, when you get (a gesture) of this magnitude — running nearly a marathon to recreate the journey that saved his life — I can’t think of a more meaningful and powerful way to say thank you. To me, it means everything.”
© Courtesy of Paulo Santos Paulo Santos
To Santos, it means a new chapter. His recovery is over.
“Every time somebody said I was a survivor and recovering, it was an excuse to not push myself harder,” he said. “I don’t want to be that person anymore. I hated being that person.”
Paulo Santos hopes his run inspires others who beat COVID.
“It’s time for us to be thrivers, not survivors,” he said. “That’s what our doctors and nurses would prefer.”
To contribute to Paulo Santos’ fundraiser, visit www.gofundme.com/f/thank-you-to-our-covid19-heroes.
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: COVID-19 almost killed him; on Saturday, New Jersey man ran 20 miles between hospitals that saved him