By Sara Bondell - June 05, 2020
As the clinic manager in the blood draw clinic at Moffitt Cancer Center, nurse Leo Begazo sees hundreds of patients each day. He knows the impact that small gestures can have, like remembering a patient’s name, and always tells his new nurses to picture themselves in a patient’s shoes.
That advice became very real to Begazo this spring, when he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
It all started March 12, the day before Leo and his family were set to travel to Colombia for a family reunion. His 12-year-old daughter, Diana Maria, came down with flu-like symptoms and a fever. There were few known COVID-19 cases in the U.S. at that time, so the virus wasn’t a big concern. Diana Maria tested positive for the flu, and the family cancelled their trip.
And then, one by one, like falling dominos, the rest of the family fell ill.
Days after Diana Maria fell ill, 21-year-old Leo Jr. began showing symptoms. His parents convinced him to stay at their home while he recovered. As COVID-19 cases spiked across the nation, so did Leo Jr.’s fever. On March 30, it hit 103.8, and he went to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with the virus.
The rest of the family went to a drive-thru testing site, but it would take almost a week for the results. All would be positive for COVID-19.
Begazo and his wife Carolina, who also works in the medical field, turned Leo Jr.’s childhood bedroom into an isolation room. Begazo volunteered to be his son’s caretaker, wearing gloves and a mask and constantly disinfecting.
On April 3, he developed a fever and dry cough. He went to the hospital, but was told he could recover and isolate at home.
“My son was starting to feel better and had beat the virus,” Begazo said. “I figured because I had the same symptoms and was given the same medications the same thing would happen to me. But I didn’t take into consideration he is 21 and I am 47.”
Two days later, Leo was losing consciousness and could barely breathe. Getting worse by the hour, Carolina called 9-1-1.
No time for goodbyes
“It felt like someone was blocking my nose and mouth and there was just one small opening the size of a straw I could breathe through,” Begazo recalled. “I thought I was going to suffocate to death.”
There was no time for hugs or goodbyes, but as paramedics took her father away, Diana Maria slipped a hand-written note into his pocket. “I love you with all my heart,” it said. “I want you to get better as soon as possible.”
That note stayed by Begazo’s side his entire hospital stay.
The paramedics brought him to the closest emergency room at South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center. Unfamiliar with the smaller hospital, he grew anxious. But that all changed when he recognized a nurse he taught classes with at Florida Career College. She was working that night and assured him the team would take care of him.
“She said, ‘Why are you so scared?’ and I told her I was afraid I was going to die,” Begazo said. “And she said to me, ‘You’re not going to die under my watch. I promise you we will do everything to keep you alive.’”
Begazo was put on an observational floor but moved to the intensive care unit (ICU) on April 7. His biggest fear was having to be put on a ventilator, and he begged doctors to exhaust all other options first. They put him in mild sedation and kept him in the prone position for three days to try and increase the oxygen getting to his lungs.
While Begazo was sedated, Carolina was admitted to the hospital and sent straight to the ICU, two doors down from her husband. Begazo’s brother, a retired Army major, immediately drove down from Georgia to take care of the kids. He camped out in the family’s backyard for six days, wearing his Army-issued protective gear when he went inside.
On April 10, Carolina was released from the ICU onto an observational floor, but Begazo was getting worse. Doctors told Carolina her husband had less than a 40% chance of survival and that intubation was his best option. She called Begazo and begged him to comply.
“That is when I left the denial stage,” Begazo said. “This is life and death. That’s it. I am never going to forget that moment. It was me, God and death in front of me.”
One last option
Leo took a moment to pray and agreed to the induced coma and ventilator.
Two days later—Easter Sunday—Begazo was still on the decline. His liver and kidneys were failing. His chance of survival had dropped to 10%, and doctors were out of options. Looking for a Hail Mary pass, one doctor scoured the Centers for Disease Control guidelines one last time. He came across a drug called tocilizumab, just approved for clinical trial usage for medical personnel and first responders with COVID-19. By what Begazo calls divine intervention, he was enrolled in the trial, approved by insurance and given the medication that same night. By the next morning, he was improving.
Nurses gave Begazo a marker and file folder and asked him to write. His first drawings are illegible, squiggly lines and made up symbols. But days later, a real message. “Jesus tu eres me roca,” he wrote. “Jesus is my rock.”
On April 15, Begazo was taken off the ventilator, two days earlier than planned.
“The doctor told me I was a walking miracle,” he said. “He told me my miracle really enhanced his faith as a doctor and a man.”
Begazo spent four more days in the ICU and four more on an observational floor. On April 23, he was released from the hospital. Nearly three weeks had passed since he had seen his family.
“For 18 days, the nurses had become my family,” Begazo said. “When you are in an induced coma, you can’t feel anything, but you can still hear. I heard the nurses encouraging me and praying in my ear. They would hold my hand and make me feel cared for, that I meant something to them.”
Begazo is continuing to recover at home. It’s been a slow process, but he is getting stronger every day.
When he left the hospital, blowing up a balloon felt like running 50 miles; now, he can blow them up easily. He has moved from needing supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day to just when he is feeling out of breath, like after climbing the stairs in his home. While his lung function is still only 50%, each week he prays for the green light to return to work.
“This experience changed my life completely and I want to share this with anyone I come across,” Begazo said. “I know I was a good person before and tried to instill that in my Moffitt team and provide for my patients, but today I see life in a different way.”
He now knows that each day, each hour could be your last. He has seen what medical care is like on the other side and knows without a doubt how important personalized care really is. Begazo said it’s not just a slogan on the wall outside of Moffitt, it’s the utmost honor and responsibility—to have someone’s hope and life in your hands and be able to make a difference.
“People ask me, if I could go back would I change anything? And I tell them, no I wouldn’t,” Begazo said. “This made me be a better person. This experience really helped me see my faith in God and purpose in life.”