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Nurse on ventilator given 10 percent chance of survival beats COVID-19 and is back at work

Moffitt Cancer Center nurse Leo Begazo came close to death when he fought COVID-19 in April. His doctor tried an experimental drug and called it 'a miracle.'

TAMPA, Fla. — He didn't want to go to the hospital.

He didn't want to get put on a ventilator.

More than anything, he didn't want to die.

Leo Begazo believes his recovery is a result of the miraculous combination of God and science.

Begazo, the operations manager for the Blood Draw Clinic at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida came down with the coronavirus this past spring along with his wife and two children.

His daughter was first to have symptoms of COVID-19 followed by his son who came down with a high fever and dry cough. After a trip the emergency room, his son eventually beat the virus at home in an isolated room. Leo Begazo cared for his son and despite taking precautions by limiting time in the same room and wearing a mask, he ended up in the hospital with COVID-19 himself.

Begazo was not able to beat the virus at home. Although he resisted, his wife called an ambulance to take him to the hospital in the middle of the night. Now, five months later, Begazo says his wife made the right call.

"The feeling is like you're suffocating, basically, like you’re dying," he said of the breathing difficulty combined with the worse headache of his life and a fever that would not quit. Due to protocols, paramedics took him away leaving no time or space for goodbyes.

"I couldn’t even say goodbye to by wife and my children. They were standing by the door. It was sad really, the way I had to leave the house," he recalled.

His 12-year-old daughter slipped a note in his pocket never knowing that note would hang on his bed for the 18-day stay in the hospital.

Begazo's condition continued to worsen by the day. He recalled doctors telling him his lungs were completely overtaken by the virus and he was close to cardiac arrest. He needed to go on a ventilator.

He said the doctor told him, "If you don’t do it, you're most likely going to die on this bed. I can guarantee you that." 

To make matters worse, Begazo's wife was admitted to an ICU bed a few rooms away with her own COVID-19 diagnosis. The two were most concerned about their children. After some convincing from his doctor, Begazo agreed to go on the ventilator and shared a few last words with his wife including a message for his son and daughter, "Just tell them that if I don’t wake up, I love them with all my heart."

While in the coma, Begazo's condition got worse by the hour and his doctor informed the family that he had less than a 10 percent chance of survival. Begazo's doctor continued to research any last options and came across a drug trial being used to treat COVID-19 in first responders and healthcare workers. Because Begazo is a nurse, he qualified.

Miraculously, the hospital had tocilizumab, a drug sometimes used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, on hand. The night of Easter Sunday, Begazo was given the drug. His doctor told his family it had worked 50 percent of the time on the 45 patients that received it. Begazo was patient number 46. He opened his eyes at 11 o'clock the next morning.

Credit: Leo Begazo

"You need to know you’re a miracle," is what Begazo recalls his doctor saying on discharge day.

His recovery required months of physical therapy, at-home exercises, and about ten weeks on an oxygen tank. The healthy 47-year-old without any underlying conditions returned to work Sept. 1 at Moffitt Cancer Center. Although he still experiences shortness of breath and fatigue, he's never been more grateful.

Credit: Moffitt Cancer Center

"I remember thinking a lot about my patients, thinking about how they go through everyday with the cancer treatment, the cancer journey," said Begazo who says the entire experience confirmed why he choose the medical field and gives him a profound sense of empathy for his patients.

Cancer patients are incredible fighters often desperate to survive, no matter what it takes...a feeling Leo Begazo now knows and won't forget for the rest of his life.

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