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COVID-19 ‘patient zero’ released from local hospital after 25-day stay

Michael Lopez took his younger sister, Gigi, 20, to Europe to celebrate her upcoming 21st...
Michael Lopez took his younger sister, Gigi, 20, to Europe to celebrate her upcoming 21st birthday. His first symptoms appeared on March 7 in London. Days after their return home, he was in ICU. (Courtesy photo)(KWTX)
Published: Apr. 10, 2020 at 7:32 PM CDT
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Michael Lopez, 27, the first patient to be admitted to Ascension Providence with COVID-19 left the hospital Thursday as doctors, nurses and staff cheered and applauded.

Lopez, a Waco native and Baylor University employee who tutors athletes and has no underlying health issues, spent 25 days in the hospital, 19 of them in intensive care and 15 of them on a ventilator, at one point on 100% oxygen.

"I feel so lucky and grateful to be alive," Lopez told KWTX Friday.

"Right now, I feel fine, I feel good. I'm actually standing up checking my oxygen in my room."

Lopez doesn't have any recollection of most of his 25-day hospital stay, but his parents do.

Amy and Vincent Lopez dropped their son off on March 16 for a coronavirus test at the hospital after he developed fever and a cough he described as "wet" following a trip to Europe.

They watched him briefly through an isolation window, but had no idea it would be the last time they'd see their son in person for the next month.

Lopez was admitted to the hospital, developed pneumonia and was taken to ICU before his coronavirus test results were even back.

Just hours after being moved to ICU his oxygen levels plummeted and doctors told him they wanted to put him on a ventilator.

Lopez, scared and alone, called his parents for advice.

His father says he then made the toughest decision of his life; to tell his son to do it.

"It was hard," Vincent said.

"I cried, yeah, yeah I cried. It's one of the hardest decisions I've ever made."

"I felt like my soul came out of my body," Amy added.

"I was just trying to hang on with every thread, there is just no other way to explain it. We told him we loved him and he said he loved us and we hung up and that's when I wanted to die and God said 'he's going to be OK. "

It's the last conversation Lopez remembers until he woke up last week.

"I called them and said 'I'm OK. I'm at peace' and they said 'OK let's do it.' So I told the doctor 'alright' and that's all I remember,” he said.

His parents, longtime members of St. Louis Catholic Church, say it's their strong faith in God that pulled them through.

The nightmare started after a dream trip.

Lopez took his younger sister, Gigi, 20, to Europe to celebrate her upcoming 21st birthday.

The family had considered canceling the trip as concern about the new coronavirus began to spread, but decided to go ahead with it because Michael and Gigi were young and healthy.

Lopez and his sister did, however, decide they would self-isolate immediately after they returned.

Michael and Gigi arrived in Europe on March 5 and enjoyed a few days of sightseeing before Michael developed a cough on March 7 in London.

Even though he was considered at low risk for having complications from the coronavirus, Lopez began to worry.

"That's in my mind when I started thinking I might have it. My sister wanted me to stop thinking that way," Lopez said.

Their parents were worried enough that his father, who owns a cleaning and restoration business, outfitted the family's small SUV, securing an area where Lopez could self-isolate.

Then they drove the SUV to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to pick up their son and daughter, taking N-95 masks with them as an additional precaution.

After they returned home, Michael stayed in his room, but when he developed the fever on March 15, his mother decided he should be tested.

Lopez became "patient zero" for coronavirus at the hospital.

Looking back, the family recognizes the staff was scrambling.

"There was a whole barrier they put up because he was the first one," Amy said.

"They said 'we had to scramble and get it all up to get you in here.’ They have these whole wards now but it started with him. "

Lopez’s condition was touch-and-go for days.

He was treated with a combination of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and a Z-PAC.

He was also on a Rota bed, which they say helped in his recovery.

He was finally taken off the ventilator on April 3.

"My first memory was one day waking up and a nurse asking me what was my name and my birthday and if I knew they date," he said.

"I knew my name, knew my birthday but didn't know the date. I thought it was May."

Lopez says he hopes sharing his story drives home the point that even young and healthy people are at risk.

He says he thinks his case opened even the eyes of medical professionals to the unpredictable nature of the virus.

"To them the coronavirus was the old people virus and here I come, 27 years old and I'm coming in and they’re like this is not just an elderly thing. It even gave the nurses an awareness."

He says while sheltering in place and limiting contact may be hard and inconvenient it's nothing compared to fighting for life.

"Trust me you do not want to go what I went through so if you can stay home, stay home," Michael said.

A second coronavirus test result on Thursday still returned a positive result, but doctors are unsure if it's an active case or simply dead cells from the virus.

No matter which, he'll be recovering in isolation at his parents’ home.

Lopez has watched the emotional video that the hospital shared that shows him leaving the hospital Thursday but says he didn’t need to see it to remember it.

"I've never experienced emotions like that knowing I was able to go home," he said as his voice quivered.

"I'm getting emotional just talking about it. To see the nurses I worked with there, especially in the ICU it was just amazing. Then going outside and seeing my parents for the first time, oh, it was so emotional."

His parents were just as moved as he was.

"We said ‘we're here to pick up Michael Lopez' and they said 'this is for him come on up.' They got us masks and I Face-Timed his sisters so they could see their brother come out of the hospital. I was just crying, I was just crying," his mother said.

His father fought back tears with the same overwhelming feeling of thankfulness.

"It was good, it was good. I got my son back," he said.

Lopez’s parents and sister, Gigi self-isolated in their home. His older sister lives in San Antonio. None has shown symptoms of the virus.