On Christmas Day, Catherine Pace and her sisters got the call they’d been dreading: Their father, Mike Santucci, who had spent the last month on a ventilator at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, was not expected to survive much longer.
As her children opened presents, Pace ran to her kitchen to sob. Just over a month earlier, her 60-year-old father had been a healthy, outgoing union tile setter and doting grandfather. When he was first diagnosed with COVID-19, he thought he’d be well quickly. Even after he ended up at a nearby hospital, he’d been optimistic, joking with his family by text. But after Thanksgiving, he became gravely ill, and soon doctors were telling his family it was time to say goodbye.
He pulled through, but as with many COVID-19 patients, the recovery was touch-and-go. Over the next six months, he battled infections, pneumonia, a collapsed lung, and other life-threatening setbacks.
Yet by May, he was off the ventilator; by June, he was walking.
Wednesday, he returned to the family home in Fox Chase after more than 200 days in hospitals and rehabs.
Family and friends -- all vaccinated -- gathered at the Santucci house to welcome him. Santucci’s youngest daughter, Michelle, printed out a banner: “Welcome Home, Pop!” His six grandchildren colored in the letters together. Joe Pace, Catherine’s husband, a crane operator, hung an enormous American flag from a crane and parked it in front of the house. Neighbors stopped by all afternoon.
“Is he home yet?” one yelled from a passing car.
As many hospital patients can attest, it took hours to organize everything he needed to go home. On his porch at last, Mike joked to a reporter that he didn’t remember much of his ordeal: “I don’t know nothing!” he said, laughing. He grinned as his grandchildren lined up for high-fives.
“He went through hell, and now he’s back,” said his wife, Anne-Marie Santucci, who has known Mike since the first grade. “He’s a miracle, and he’s loved so much.”
The hero’s welcome was a moment of levity at the end of a year full of stress, grief, and uncertainty. “A couple times, they said, there’s not much more we can do,” Catherine Pace said. As Mike worsened, the family’s wide circle of friends stepped up to help, including Bill Pace, Joe Pace’s brother, an infectious disease physician who works at several area hospitals.
Bill Pace had been treating COVID-19 patients for months. By Christmas, he was nearly certain Mike would die. When Mike’s oldest daughter, Maria Savage, asked Pace to speak with doctors who were recommending end-of-life comfort medications, Pace found himself on the other side of a conversation he’d had with dozens of families. He knew how slim the odds were.
“But I knew that he wouldn’t want to give up. And I knew that his family wasn’t ready to give up either,” he said. He told Mike’s doctors that the family wanted to continue to treat the virus aggressively, “with the expectation of a full recovery.”
“In some cases, I questioned that myself -- if that was the right decision, because of how sick he was, and the likelihood it was ultimately going to end up with his death, no matter what we did,” Bill Pace said. “I had seen it hundreds of times. But we kept plugging along, and he kept fighting alongside.”
The family FaceTimed Mike every night, certain their voices would cheer him even as he lay unconscious on a ventilator. On New Year’s Eve, his favorite holiday, they found a spot on the sixth floor of a Center City parking garage within view of Mike’s hospital room. They lit sparklers, cracked beers, and cheered him on. They prayed -- to St. Michael the Archangel, to St. Pio of Pietrelcina, to all the patron saints they could find who had anything to do with the respiratory system. Catherine kept a St. Michael’s candle lit in her home the entire time her father was in the hospital.
When Mike regained consciousness about two months ago, he was surprised to learn he’d been hospitalized for COVID-19 at all. One memory from his time on the ventilator has stayed with him: He remembers a vision of his late father, who told him to “go back.”
“I feel miraculous, I guess,” he said in an interview Friday.
In AristaCare at Meadow Springs, the Plymouth Meeting rehab facility where he’s worked to regain his strength, Mike taped photos of his daughters and grandchildren to the walls. Last month, he went outside for the first time since November.
“I was glad to see a tree, basically,” he said, laughing. “All I saw was four walls with wallpaper for the longest time.”
Relieved as they are, the Santuccis know the road ahead will be long. Like many COVID-19 patients who suffered serious complications from the disease, Mike now needs at-home care and will undergo a long course of physical therapy to regain his strength.
Though he can breathe on his own -- doctors had tested his readiness to go home by capping his tracheotomy tube and testing his oxygen levels -- he still needs supplemental oxygen. His lungs may be permanently damaged from the virus. He lost more than 100 pounds in the hospital (though in recent weeks had regained about 10 pounds, mostly by eating Tastykakes, his children said).
“It’s a little rough to breathe -- it’ll be better once my lungs come back. And I lost all muscle tone. I gotta build my muscle back up,” he said. Outside of his physical recovery, he’s hoping to take a trip to the beach this summer. Otherwise, it’s “one day at a time.”
Though they’re vaccinated, he, and the family, are still nervous about the virus. It’s nerve-wracking, Catherine Pace said, to see the world returning to normal when her family has been living with the fear of the virus for months.
“I’m happy to see people are going to go back to work, because I don’t like seeing people out of work. But I hope it isn’t too much too soon,” Mike said. “I want people to get vaccinated. This was no fun for me. I’m glad I made it through, but a lot of people did not make it through this.”
Bill Pace said he’s still astonished at Santucci’s recovery. “I have very few outcomes like this, from patients as sick as him -- he’s one of three patients over the past year-plus that I was involved with who were as sick as he was, who were on a ventilator for so long, and were able to make it home,” he said.
“Everyone [in the family] kind of went through the wringer -- but no one gave up hope. Everyone believed he was going to eventually get home. Even when I didn’t. I don’t often enjoy being wrong, but, man -- it was probably my favorite time being wrong, ever.”