Although COVID-19 cases fall in Lancaster County, Nick Barakos still wears a KN-95 face mask in public, which is often asked by virus skeptics.
That’s when he pulls out his cell phone.
He rolls through photos of him in the intensive care unit at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital, where he was near death and spent 36 days on life support last February, struggling to breathe as a COVID-19 patient.
“I love it when people ask me about it,” said Barakos, 57, owner of Kyma Seafood and Johnny’s Bar & Steakhouse in Stevens.
Because it’s an opportunity for the East Cocalico Township man to tell his story.
After setting a record as the COVID-19 patient who spent the longest time on a respirator in the history of Ephrata Borough Hospital, Barakos left the intensive care unit unrecognizable to his family. He had lost 60 pounds from his 5-foot 10-inch frame and so much muscle mass that he was too weak to raise a fork to eat. He even needed to learn to walk again.
Prolonged time on a ventilator – a machine that forces oxygen-rich air into fluid-filled lungs like Barakos’ – is not ideal.
“The longer you go on venting, even without COVID, the longer you run into long-term problems,” said Dr. John “Jack” Joseph, a WellSpan pulmonologist and one of the doctors on the team that treated Barakos.
Ventilated patients may develop complications such as muscle weakness, recurrent infections, pressure ulcers, hyperactive delirium and post-traumatic stress disorder.
More than 30 days on life support is not a COVID-19 record. It was determined by a 53-year-old Lebanese man who spent 118 days on a fan in the United Kingdom in 2020.
Full recovery, however, many escape.
New research – including a 2020 study from the National Institutes of Health – has shown a mortality rate for ventilated COVID-19 patients of around 40%.
“He’s an outlier, there is no doubt about that,” Joseph said of Barakos, who has since resumed his usual routine.
It’s a remarkable but long comeback. It’s been a little over a year since COVID sent Barakos to the hospital, and today it’s been two years since the first two COVID-19 cases were reported in Lancaster County and Pennsylvania saw its first death.
‘Sister, I do not want to die’
Barakos, which has a full gym in its basement, has always been strong and healthy; one to avoid doctors and trouble.
So when Barakos broke down on the phone during the last conversation he had with his big sister, Vickie Saltos, before the medical staff intubated him, she said that was all she could do to stay together.
“Sister,” Saltos said, he told her, “I do not want to die.”
Saltos said she told Barakos, “You’re not going to die. You’re in a good place.”
But privately, doubt plagued Saltos with every bad report.
“There were so many ups and downs, but mostly downs,” said Saltos, 59, of Springettsbury Township in York County.
Saltos added, “You could see him gradually getting worse. I was crying all the time. I was crushed.”
The curfew at the time also increased her grief.
Saltos sought creative solutions with Zoom calls and daily text messages to encourage Barakos, though it would take months before he ever read one. She also traveled to Ephrata to sit in her car outside his hospital room and cry.
But it was the palliative call that made her unresolved.
Palliative care is focused on providing symptom relief to improve quality of life. At WellSpan, the palliative care team typically reaches out when a patient has a terminal diagnosis. With COVID-19 patients, palliative care becomes involved when a patient is in the intensive care unit and does not progress, said Ryan Coyle, a spokesman for the health care system.
Chris Saltos, Barakos’ brother-in-law, said he asked the palliative staff: “Can we give him a chance to fight?”
‘He was our miracle’
After more than five weeks in a ventilator, Barakos’ kidneys and liver began to shut down.
At one point, doctors gave Barakos a 30% chance of survival, family members said.
“He was our miracle,” Allison Sigman, ICU clinical coordinator, said in a press release.
On the day Barakos was intubated, Lancaster County had 82 COVID-19 patients in a ventilator, according to data from the state Department of Health.
During the time Barakos was intubated, more than 5,000 Lancaster County residents became infected and 45 COVID-19 patients died.
WellSpan staff called Barakos an inspiration.
Gerri Harris, one of Barakos’ regular nurses, remembered the dark times.
“No one made it,” Harris said in a statement.
Harris added, “Whatever we did, the patients seemed to be dying. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for this disease.”
And then Barakos showed signs of improvement.
“We have definitely won the lottery,” Saltos said. “He’s still nearby.”
A long and challenging rehabilitation followed after his discharge.
Greek and, self-described, inclined to express his feelings, Barakos was strangled during the retelling of his return from the brink of death.
And he is grateful.
Earlier this month, he donated $ 10,000 to WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital for the intensive care staff he attributes to saving his life.
The money, Coyle said, will be used to renovate the staff lounge.
With Pennsylvania on the brink of hitting 44,000 COVID-19 deaths – more than 1,600 in Lancaster County – since the start of the pandemic, Barakos laments the loss of human life.
“It’s a virus,” Barakos said. “It does not discriminate. I think we could have saved many more lives if people had been vaccinated.”