Last Patient in COVID Recovery Unit Goes Home
Tears flow as Agustin Tlathuetl sees his children for the first time in months and thanks his caregivers at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center for giving him a second chance at life.
Jimmy Tlathuetl wants to go for a run with his dad, Agustin, soon. It’s a simple wish, but considering that Agustin spent three months hospitalized at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center battling COVID-19, the fact that he can realistically work toward exercising with his 18-year-old son is nothing short of extraordinary.
“He was on a ventilator, deeply sedated, and paralyzed, and among the sickest of the sick,” says Dr. Lindsay Lief, director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Even with maximum support from the ventilator, his oxygen levels were low.”
When Agustin was in the ICU, Dr. Lief had heard that her 37-year-old patient has six children, with the youngest, Kailani, only 3 months old. Her team called the child life specialists to further support Agustin and his family as they managed his care. While the ICU staff had kept in touch with his wife, Rosa, with frequent updates, the Child Life team helped facilitate conversations with Rosa and the kids, setting up regular FaceTime calls so that the children — and even their Chihuahua, Lucas — could see and talk to Agustin. “They would all tell him, ‘Do not be scared. We’re here, we love you,” says child life specialist Nina Friedman, who worked closely with the Tlathuetl family. “There was love pouring out of that tablet. They just never gave up.”
After two months in the ICU, Agustin’s condition slowly but steadily improved, and he was eventually weaned off the ventilator and moved to the COVID Recovery Unit, under the direction of Dr. Leroy Lindsay and Dr. Laura Kolbe. There, Agustin received specialized rehabilitation and medical care and worked to regain his strength. After he moved to the unit, Rosa was allowed to see her husband in person, offering support and inspiration as Agustin got back on his feet. “When he saw Rosa for the first time, he was in the middle of a physical therapy session and they were trying to get his heart rate up,” remembers Friedman. “And as soon as she walked in the room, you could hear the monitor, his heart rate just skyrocketed. The therapists were like, ‘OK, PT is done, that’s the level we were trying to get to.’”
Agustin got stronger with the help of the NewYork Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center Rehabilitation Medicine team and Rosa by his side. The COVID Recovery Unit treated more than 100 patients, and Agustin was officially the unit’s last patient. On July 17, the day of his discharge, the lights to the unit were turned off as the team led Agustin down a hallway of cheering staff and — to Agustin’s surprise — five of his six children. It was the first time his oldest kids had seen their dad in three months.
His children, Jimmy, Edwin, 12, Lindsay, 9, Brigitte, 7, and Brittany, 4, waited in anticipation with homemade signs before seeing their dad and finally getting to embrace him again.
Even on Agustin’s sickest days, his care team remained determined to get him to that happy moment. “When I saw him in the hospital, I thought, OK, we’re going to get him through it. I’m going to see him in our COVID Recovery Unit, and the post-ICU clinic, and home with his family, enjoying his life with his kids,” says Dr. Lief. “It’s wonderful to see him getting back to his normal life.”
Another surprise awaited Agustin when he got home: a festive mariachi band, arranged by his sister, followed by a big meal. “He was crying and so happy,” says Rosa, of the family’s celebration that day. “It was very emotional.”
In the weeks since, Agustin has been enjoying time with his family, playing with his kids and taking walks, each day a step closer to a run in the neighborhood with Jimmy. “It was a very difficult time and I am very thankful to the doctors who didn’t give up on me,” says Agustin. “I am thankful for all my doctors, nurses, therapists, and my wife for keeping me going. They gave me a new life.”