'Miracles do come true': Tales from COVID-19 survivors

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Jon Montes and Chesterzel Gonzales, COVID-19 survivors

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 7) – The Philippines on Friday tallied over a million recoveries from COVID-19 more than a year since the local outbreak began. While majority of patients only suffer mild symptoms, there are those who barely survive.

Jon Montes caught COVID-19 in March and spent a month in hospital. At one point, his doctors thought he wouldn't make it after passing out for an entire day, thinking he would go into cardiac arrest any second.

"I really thought I was going to die that night," he told CNN Philippines, recounting he remembers feeling tired from a hemoperfusion session – a process that cleans the blood of toxins similar to dialysis – and woke up unable to feel his hands and limbs.

He was so weak he couldn't pick up his phone to call his relatives while on his hospital bed. Montes said he briefly woke up to utter his final prayers - that God take care of his 80-year-old mom left at home, and that his family would not feel shattered should he pass away.

"Noong nagising ako, tumulo ang luha ko and I believe I can say miracles do come true," said Montes, fighting back tears.

The 40-year-old businessman first experienced flu-like symptoms on March 2 and lost his sense of smell. He eventually felt restless and had body pains. He knew the risks as someone living with diabetes and two autoimmune diseases, so he drove himself from Bulacan to a Quezon City hospital the next day.

Montes showed strong recovery and was discharged 10 days later, having only suffered fever and a painful headache that needed steroids to manage.

All was well – he could walk around and do household chores again until one day, his food seemed bland again. He recalled eating a yang chow dish and found it tasting like plain rice.

Then his knees grew weak and he fell. He gasped for air and his fingers were turning blue. The doctors explained COVID-19 hits people with autoimmune diseases differently, even if he had already tested negative for the virus on March 6.

Montes was rushed back to the hospital on March 22, with a relative driving for him as he was already too frail. There, he was given a high-flow nasal cannula to let him breathe, as an oxygen tank wasn't helping restore his oxygen level which fell to 84%. A healthy person must have a blood oxygen level of 95% or higher.

Apart from physical pain, the mental toll was unbearable.

"How can I tell you that I'm okay when I'm all alone inside the room and I don't even know if I'm going home alive? Ang humirap lumaban kasi wala kang madaingan sa paligid mo [It's hard to fight back because there's no one there to bear it with you]," Montes recounted, saying he would randomly cry while in isolation.

"There are times that I can feel pain at the center of my chest and at the sides of my back, para bang bigla ka na lang didiinan na sabay yung dalawang baga mo [it's like someone is suddenly putting pressure on your lungs]."

This pang of loneliness also made it harder for Chesterzel Gonzales, a 25-year-old survivor. While he suffered mild COVID-19 in April and needed an oxygen tank for 8 days, it was harder to know that four other family members also battled the disease in other rooms in the house.

"Every minute, every hour, I keep on praying. Sabi ko: Lord, heal me kasi madami pa akong gustong gawin. It's really hard for me na wala kang support system noong una," said Gonzales, who initially thought that his fever was merely a side effect of taking his first vaccine shot as he runs a maternity clinic. The symptoms progressed as he was not yet fully protected by the jab.

[Translation: Every minute, every hour, I keep on praying. I said: Lord, heal me because I have many other goals to pursue. It's really hard for me that I didn't have a support system at first.]

RELATED: Home care for asymptomatic, mild or moderate COVID-19 patients may be an option - expert

Gonzales has since tested negative, but he still suffers from constant cough, fatigue, and weak sense of smell. On his eighth day in isolation, he decided to make public his COVID-19 status and found solace in the well wishes of friends and the shared misery with fellow patients.

For Montes, the scars are deeper a month since he was discharged. He has been losing hair from medication and continues to battle pneumonia which will take 3 to 6 months for full recovery, according to his doctor. The hospital confinement, professional fees, and private nurse which he hired to keep him company also cost him ₱2.1 million, already excluding PhilHealth and other medical benefits he could avail.

The Department of Health has been reminding the public to wear face masks and face shields properly, keep a safe distance from others, and to isolate and get tested when symptoms appear in the face of more infectious COVID-19 variants.

Montes' bout with the coronavirus was life changing. Now, it's a story of hope for thousands of patients to fight hard and get well.

"When you are sick and somebody would tell you, 'laban ka pa, gusto ka pa naming makita, [keep fighting, we want to be with you again]' it helped me fight," he said.

"Nakakawala talaga ng pag-asa 'yung pag-iisa during sickness. Since na-survive ko, sabi ko ilalaban ko na matulungan ko ang iba na ilaban din 'yung buhay nila [It's really disheartening to be alone during sickness. Since I survived, I said I will do what I can to help others to also fight for their lives]."