When he awoke from a month-long coma, one of Jeff Gerson’s first thoughts was that he wanted to thank the people who saved his life.
Gerson, a 45-year-old from Manhattan, arrived at NYU Langone Tisch Hospital on March 18 with shortness of breath, an uncontrollable cough, and a 103-degree fever. A day later, he was diagnosed with Covid-19 and put on a ventilator.
Gerson spent five months trying to track down every medical professional who helped him recover. The list was 116 people long, he said.
“I just feel tremendously grateful and lucky,” Gerson told CNN this week. “The story, if there is one, is not necessarily that I survived, but that these people saved my life. I really felt the need to find them, get their names, and thank them.”
He penned a letter in November to thank the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and others. Gerson emailed it to a hospital administrator, who passed it along to the staff.
“If you are receiving this letter, it is because I have become aware that you had a part in saving my life,” Gerson wrote. “It is only after much effort on my part to find your names that I would realize just how many of you there were on my care team.”
It took months to find all the healthcare workers
He sleuthed for the names in three ways. He started with the MyChart app, which tracks a patient’s tests and care. Gerson saw who ordered the more than 750 tests, from blood work to EKGs, he underwent while at the hospital.
A nurse helped him get 60 names in a spreadsheet a month after he was discharged in late April. And he scoured insurance reports to see names tied to his insurance claims.
He had to find a way to thank them, he said. Saying thank you when he awoke from the coma was difficult, as the hospital limited the number of staff coming in and out of his ICU room.
“Except for the nurses that I was directly interacting with, there really wasn’t an opportunity to say thank you to anybody. It left a void in my emotional recovery,” Gerson said. “Here I am having survived, I’m crying with joy every morning and I feel a huge debt of gratitude to these people who I can’t even talk to because they’re not coming into my room.”
A kind nurse excitedly welcomed him back and quickly offered to help him call friends and family who were so concerned about him. No one had been allowed to visit.
Gerson awoke on April 17. “I woke up just in time to call my son on his sixth birthday,” he said.
A week later, an “emotional parade through the hallway of the hospital” greeted him when he was discharged, he said.
“It was really a party and a celebration for the people in the hospital,” Gerson said. “They were just ecstatic and so happy to be sending someone to rehab alive and with a good prognosis.”
The finance professional said he wanted to throw a huge party for everyone who helped him. That was until he realized the world had changed in the time he was sedated.
“I looked out the window and this is when it slowly started occurring to me: The world was not the same world that I left when I went to sleep,” he said.
Doctors tried everything they could
The medical team caring for Gerson kept the otherwise healthy, then 44-year-old alive with two types of mechanical intervention.
Dr. Luis Angel, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist, was one of Gerson’s ICU doctors.
“Soon after he was admitted to our hospital, he developed respiratory failure and pneumonia with Covid,” Angel told CNN. “It was clear that we weren’t able to support him initially with the oxygen and then with the mechanical ventilation. Then it became important for him to use the system that is called the ECMO.”
ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, uses a pump to remove the patient’s blood and circulate it through an artificial lung. The artificial lung adds oxygen to the patient’s blood and removes carbon dioxide. It’s often called the highest form of life support.
“He was very, very sick and we had to keep him under really deep sedation in a way that he couldn’t remember anything for at least two or three weeks until his lungs started recuperating with time,” Angel said.
It was mid-March, and it was early in the pandemic. Not much was known about how to treat Covid-19 patients, except what doctors were doing in China and Italy, two of the earliest hot spots.
Using ECMO and tracheostomies, which were both done for Gerson, were two “controversial” treatments at that point, Angel said. The thought was that these patients were so sick that they would not survive the treatment.
“Jeff was one of almost 50 patients that we placed on ECMO here at NYU during the pandemic,” he said.
If not for the ECMO and tracheostomy, Angel said Gerson would have died.
When Angel saw the letter Gerson wrote to those who cared for him, he said it felt “nice” but that the team was just doing their job.
“In the end, we are not looking for anyone to particularly say thank you or anything like that,” Angel said.
After working long shifts and not taking time off for weeks and weeks, Angel said that the letter was meaningful.
“You see the significant amount of work that he did and somebody that very likely was going to die in the hospital, makes a full recovery and then he’s able to say thank you is very meaningful for us,” Angel said.
He couldn’t reach one doctor
Gerson was unable to reach one person: Dr. Sydney Mehl, who was treating patients with Covid-19 when he too fell ill and died of the virus, a hospital spokeswoman confirmed.
Mehl, a cardiologist, tested positive for Covid-19 and was admitted to the hospital on March 20.
While Gerson was reading through the last of his insurance claims, he got to the earliest. The doctor on it was S. Mehl, he said.
“It occurs to me that this doctor who gave his life fighting Covid, that I was one of the last patients, if not the last patient he treated,” Gerson said.
Gerson has been in touch with Mehl’s wife and daughter by phone and text message and he’s shared how grateful he was for the doctor’s help. He also said he donated to the doctor’s memorial fund.
Since Gerson sent the letter to hospital workers, he said he’s heard from even more people who helped care from him.
The number is up to 151.
“Continue doing what you do,” Gerson wrote in the letter. “Continue being the heroes you are and know you will forever have my gratitude.”